Guest Blog: An astronaut is born

samantha-cristoforetti.jpg ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Credit: ESA - S. Corvaja, 2009

What's the next best thing for a space enthusiast after becoming an astronaut? Witnessing the professional birth of an astronaut. On May 20, 2009 the European Space Agency (ESA) announced 6 new European astronauts. My friend Samantha Cristoforetti, a fighter pilot with the Italian Air Force, is among them.

I first met Samantha in November 2007 at Astronauticon, the annual convention of the online community of Italian space enthusiasts We all had a great time, with former ESA astronaut Umberto Guidoni (STS-75, STS-100) as a guest of honor.

At the event Samantha casually mentioned that she speaks Russian. This rang such a loud bell that I still hear distant echoes. Future ESA astronauts will fly Soyuz spacecrafts, and knowledge of Russian was going to be an important skill for the upcoming ESA astronaut selection, the first since 1992. Samantha is a military pilot with a solid background. When I heard she also knows Russian, I felt I had a future astronaut in front of me.

We kept in touch. In spring 2008 ESA announced a new astronaut selection, and Samantha told me she had applied. Every now and then she mentioned passing yet another selection phase, with fewer and fewer applicants remaining of the 8413 initial ones from 17 European countries. The toughest part for her and other applicants, she said, was the uncertainty of passing tests and the wait for good or bad news.

In mid May 2009 ESA finally set for May 20 the official announcement of the new astronauts at its Paris headquarters. In the final week or so I didn't hear from her, which was reassuring. I was confident that if she was not accepted, she would have let me know. And keeping a low profile was just the right thing to do.

But mere days before May 20 something unexpected happened. Samantha deleted her Facebook account, which was getting increasing attention due to press rumors on the possible presence of Italians among the new astronauts. This was scary, I was concerned that the rumors might harm her. But there was still no word from her about an exclusion, actually no word at all. And deleting a Facebook account was consistent with what someone about to become a celebrity overnight might do.

A few sleepless nights later, on May 20, 2009, I was glued to the live webcast of the ESA announcement event. ESA officials introduced the new astronauts in alphabetical order, and she was the first to enter the room. I was speechless, breathless, anything-less. Samantha was also the first to introduce herself to the press, as you can see in this video which also includes the introduction of Luca Parmitano, a test pilot with the Italian Air Force also selected among the 6 new ESA astronauts.

And the rest, as they say, is history. History, indeed. It turns out that Samantha is the first Italian woman to be selected as an astronaut.

paolo-amoroso-square.jpgAbout the author: Paolo Amoroso lives in Milan, Italy, where he works in astronomy/space outreach and education. He wrote a book on Saturn and articles for Italian astronomy magazines.

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