What's it like living in space? What do we have planned for Mars? And what's so interesting about the the moon's south pole? Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti explains all to DW.
DW: You spent seven months in the international space station. Could you describe your feelings?
Samantha Cristoforetti: There's this experience of being part of a crew who are the only six people that happen to not be on the planet at that very moment, with everybody else beneath you. So at that very moment, you kind of embrace them [in] orbit, flying around. So there are a lot of aspects - some are physical feelings, and some are thoughts and reflections that come up.
Do you think there is sufficient scientific return from being in - and exploring - space?
I think so. I definitely think it is increasing, because we're getting better and better at exploiting the station. The station has been completely built for six years now, so it's only six years that we're basing the entire space community on.
And it's really interesting to watch what is really happening right now … which is the commercialization of the research opportunities, and reaching out to wider academia - but also industry. There seems to be a lot of interest in running research in micro-gravity. I think we've demonstrated that it works and has great potential, so it wouldn't surprise me that when the station is gone in maybe 10-12 years, then maybe some commercial platforms will come up and actually offer that opportunity to do research in micro-gravity or low Earth orbit. If that happens then it will be the tell-tale story that all of this actually made sense.
So you have nothing against the commercialization of space travel?
Quite the contrary - I think that's great. That's the whole point. We don't go to space to keep it within a closed community. We go to space to open a frontier. The more the better, and that's how you define success. The idea of more and more people wanting to go to space, having a chance to go to space, possibly even making money and advancing technology in science in space - that's what I call success.
You said you've always wanted to be an astronaut. What kind of training did you have to do before becoming one?
All kinds. The training for the space station is pretty long. It's about two and a half years, so you train in the capsule on the Soyuz, you train on the system, on normal procedures, a lot on emergency procedures in case something goes wrong. You train for space walks, you train to fly the robotic arm and you train for the experiments.
You were a pilot before. Did that help?
I think it did. Everything that you've ever learned in your life helps. It's such a diverse type of skills that you have to acquire that everything that you've learned in your life is going to help somehow. So of course my technical background as an engineer helped me, but also being trained as a pilot definitely helped me with the occupational environment. Space is an occupational environment.
Do you think that astronauts should serve as important role models for young people?
It seems to be. The reaction I get from young people - not only school age, but also university level and even older - seems to be that they look up to us. They take inspiration from what we do, so it's exciting. But at the same time it's also daunting. It's definitely quite the responsibility.
Why is the south side of the moon so interesting?
Every time the moon does a cycle - basically every 14 days - you're going to get in to darkness. And then, for 14 days, you have to stay in darkness before you get some sun. So the thermal excursions are huge. And in terms of power generation, if you're thinking of using solar panels, then you basically have 14-day cycles, which makes it very complicated in terms of energy storage.
So what happens on the south pole, where the lunar axis is a little bit inclined, is that you have areas that have permanent sunlight. At the same time, if you go down in to a crater, you have areas that are in permanent darkness. There, we assume, you could find plenty of frozen water. So those two aspects are extremely important if we're thinking about one day having a settlement on the moon. And the temperature excursions are a lot milder.
Do you think it is possible to have a settlement on the moon, at the moment, that isn't just fantasy but is actually realistic?
It is realistic. We can do it technologically with technology that we don't necessarily have, but the development of this technology is quite manageable. We know how to get there. In the end, it's just a question of political will and how much money we get to do it. And in our case, it depends on how much money we get from our member states, which determines whether we can do it in a longer or shorter time.
I think it's going to happen sooner rather than later, but it's not up to me to decide. There isn't a program right now that says we are going to the moon. We're just exploring possibilities, and obviously other people decide if it's possible. Not with technology that we have now, but definitely with technology that we know how to develop in a reasonable amount of time.
In October there's an important step with regards to Mars. What kind of mission is this?
That is ExoMars. It's a pretty exciting robotic mission that has been on its way to Mars since March. It's kind of like a two-fold mission. There is an orbiter, which will stay in orbit around Mars and setup as a communication relay, and then it's going to release a landing demonstrator, the Schiaparelli Module, that's actually going to land on Mars and demonstrate landing technology.
It's the first part of a two-part mission. The next part is expected in 2020, when we're going to launch another mission to Mars with an actual rover that is going to land on the planet and do research on the surface of the planet for an extended period of time. It will include a drill, which will penetrate in to the Martian soil quite deeply for the first time. We've had a number of rovers and robots on Mars looking for signs of life - past and present - but the exposure to the sun on the surface might actually kill, or have killed, signs of life. But if you go deeper, that's where you might find them. So it's a very exciting new thing that we're going to have on Mars.
If you got the chance, would you like to go to Mars?
In theory, if we had the technology right now, and a mission set up, and they asked me to be part of the crew, then I'd definitely be honored to be.
Why is it so fascinating?
It's the frontier. It's the next destination for humans. It's the natural destination, right? Of course, there's the moon and I'd be very excited to go to the moon as well, but in our solar system, the next place to go is Mars.
This interview was conducted by Manuela Kasper-Claridge during the "European House Ambrosetti" forum in Italy.