Text by Judit Molnár, Hungary
On 11th June 2015, when Samantha Cristoforetti landed on the steppes of Kazakhstan after 200 days spent in space, she had completed the longest space mission ever undertaken by a woman. What does it feel like to wake up 400 kilometres above the Earth day after day? What does an astronaut spend their days doing in space? And what kind of advice would she give to young people who are dreaming of a similar career? These were only some of the questions the astronaut addressed in her talk given at the European Parliament in Strasbourg to more than 1000 young people.
The journey I will take you on begins on 23 rd November 2014 in Baikonur in Kazakhstan, a magic place where the history of space exploration started. This is where I got on my space ship, the Soyuz, with my two colleagues Anton Shkaplerov and Terry Wertz to be launched into space towards the international space station, humanity’s outpost in space.
Up there, we were welcomed by the 3 previous crew members, whose time in space overlapped with ours to give us the possibility for some on-site training. Few people know that astronauts spend their time in space with experiments and research, observing phenomena that happen on the ground as well but are masked because of the lack of microgravity. We were not only the operators, but also the objects of these experiments, often taking samples from our own bodies.
Teamwork and trust are extremely important as the moment you leave Earth, you put your life in your colleagues’ hands and vice versa. It is important to have a good relationship with each other and to keep up the good mood, so we made sure to work on our social life up there: we celebrated birthdays and Christmas and even cut each other’s hair – with scissors in one hand and a mini hoover in the other to prevent the pieces of hair floating away in every direction due to weightlessness.
As for food, we mostly eat dehydrated food as fresh food is only available a couple of days of the mission when the supply ships arrive. Because water is scarce, we recycled everything from urine to sweat. In fact, we often joked that we are turning yesterday’s coffee into tomorrow’s coffee.
An important part of the day is workout. As weightlessness leads to the loss of bone mass, it was essential to give them some exercise through running and weightlifting – which of course is only possible thanks to some special equipment as in space, heavy weights just float through the air, like our bodies do when we go to sleep in our sleeping bags.
However, sometimes, we would just sit in the cupola and observe the Earth from above. It is a truly magnificent and very peaceful sight. As we were going around the world every 90 minutes, we could see 16 sunsets and sunrises every day. All the weather phenomena were just spectacular and I will never forget the auroras and the reflections of the moon. Our Earth is very beautiful indeed.
However, after 200 days, the time came to detach ourselves from the space station and return to Earth. Once I was back, all of my senses were overwhelmed with all the smells, noises I suddenly experienced. An important phase after our return is making our bodies fit again for the conditions of the Earth as the switch from weightlessness to gravity really takes its toll on you. I could feel this change in many aspects of my life: after being light to the extreme, suddenly I had to make real efforts to carry out the simplest of tasks.
People often ask me how I made it to space from the tiny Italian village in the mountains I was brought up in. Even though I have no secret recipe to success and I had to work extremely hard for everything I achieved, I consider myself blessed to have had a dream, because it inspired me to be the best I can be in every situation. None of us like to work hard for the sake of working hard, it is our passion that urges moves us to push beyond our limits in order to turn into a better person. And as long as you enjoy every phase of your learning process as much as I did mine, you will always come out as a winner.