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Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on tweeting from space and brewing the first zero-g espresso

‘Space chose me as opposed to me choosing space’

Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency, in 2015.
Photo: ESA / NASA

Samantha Cristoforetti is an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency. She currently holds a few spaceflight records — including being the first person ever to brew an espresso in space.

In 2014 and 2015, Cristoforetti spent 199 days aboard the International Space Station, where she performed a variety of scientific experiments. She studied generations of fruit flies to chart gene changes in relation to disease; she looked after Caenorhabditis elegans worms used in a Japanese-led experiment; and she tended to plants to study how they grow in microgravity.

Cristoforetti was supposed to return to Earth in May 2015, but her stay on the ISS was extended to June after a cargo ship flying on a Russian Soyuz rocket failed to reach the space station. The delay extended Cristoforetti’s stay to 199 days, allowing her to collect the record for the longest single spaceflight by any female astronaut. (NASA astronaut Sunita Williams had previously held the record at 195 days.) Cristoforetti’s record won’t last for long, though. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who’s currently on the ISS, will soon surpass her.

One of her records, however, will stay forever. Shortly before retuning to Earth, Cristoforetti used a coffee machine called ISSpresso to brew the first ever espresso in space. She then put on a Star Trek uniform top and used a special zero gravity cup to sip it.

Cristoforetti is not scheduled for another flight to the ISS for now, but she keeps working at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. Here, she works on new technologies that could one day be used for a future mission to the Moon. She’s “definitely” looking forward to going to space again though. “Hopefully it’ll be my turn again eventually,” she says.

In the meantime, The Verge spoke with Cristoforetti about how she became an astronaut, what scientific experiments she performed on the ISS, and what happened to that famous space espresso machine.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You studied abroad in the US when you were 18. Where did you go and why did you decide to do that?

I was an exchange student in St. Paul, Minnesota. And the reason I wanted to do that is because that was a challenge. I was very fascinated by the idea of not much traveling, but really discovering other places, other cultures, really learning other languages. So I always knew that I wanted to take this opportunity of doing an exchange year abroad during my school time. While I didn’t specifically choose St. Paul, Minnesota — that just happened — I chose the United States because already back then I was very much fascinated by space and science fiction, and, of course, the United States was, and still is, the leader in space exploration.

I studied abroad as well when I was in high school because I was fascinated by the US in general, and ended up in the middle of nowhere in Kansas. How did that experience shape who you are now?

I think it takes the scary aspect of going [to] a different place away because you do it at a pretty young age. That experience — that I’m sure you also made in your middle of nowhere in Kansas — of cultural shock, it’s something that’s very important to experience, I think. As a teenager, you’re still at that flexible attitude or that ability to just incorporate that into your frame, in your personality, in your experience, in your tool bag. And then you just take it on as you go. And so I think it helped me to make other decisions in my life about studying abroad, traveling abroad. I did my studies in Germany, and then I did part of it in France, and then I did my thesis in Moscow. And then, of course, right now I live and work in a very multicultural environment. I think that experience as a teenager, as a girl, gave me the confidence of making all these other choices moving on, and I think altogether they very much shaped who I am.

Working with C. Elegans cultures.
Photo: ESA / NASA

When and why did you decide to become an astronaut?

It goes back to childhood so it’s a little bit difficult to say why, because that’s an age when the decisions you make are not necessarily rational or conscious. I like to say that space chose me as opposed to me choosing space. I was just at that age when you get fascinated by something. Who knows why! The interesting thing is that, as I grew up, I developed a lot of more mature interests and passions, like science and technology and flying, and then again traveling abroad, different cultures, different languages. And all those things, all together, kept me on the path to space.

In 2014 and 2015, you spent 199 days on the International Space Station. What was your experience like?

Very difficult to describe in a few words, because it’s over six months of your life. It’s a complex experience. You start out with a huge peak of excitement because I had worked all my life almost to get to space. I had desired it for pretty much all of my life. On the one hand, you have this aspect which is the fulfillment of this incredible dream, and it’s almost, you’re there, but you can hardly believe it really happened. But then it’s also a job. You’re there to perform, people have trained you and have invested in you for years, so you also have the whole pressure of performing your job correctly and living up to expectations for 199 days.

And then you have the aspect of becoming an extraterrestrial being, really learning how to live outside of the planet, mainly living in weightlessness. And then there is the aspect of it being a home for six months and your crew mates being your family. [And then there is] the familiarity that you gain, on the one hand, for the space station, on the other hand, even for the entire Earth that you see out of the window every day. It’s a very rich and complex experience that has many, many aspects to it.

Photo: ESA / NASA

A lot of astronauts say that going to space changes their lives. Has your stay on the ISS changed you?

No, I don’t think it has. I think that’s a little exaggerated, because that’s what people really like to hear. But the truth of the matter is that when people come back and say, “I have developed this appreciation for the fragility of our planet, or us being the caretakers of the planet and being all on the same boat,” the truth is that probably we all think that anyway. Of course going to space is something that is visually present to you every single day, but it’s not like I didn’t know all those things before, right? It didn’t change me in that sense.

What scientific experiments did you work on on the ISS?

Quite a lot. I think it’s somewhere in between 200 and 250 experiments in one typical expedition of six months. Of course you don’t have to deal directly with all of them. Some of them my crew mates did, some of them just run in the background and the crew doesn’t even have to interact with them. Some of them, I just had to flip a switch or take samples and put them in the freezer, so I didn’t have to do much. And then there’s maybe a few dozens — maybe 40 to 60 — where as a crew member you are not only the operator but the actual subject. So the experiment is done on you as a human that adapts to being in space. All the experiments are pretty intensive, because you have to handle the samples, sometimes treat them, or fixate them. I even tried to raise fruit flies in space, an experiment with real animals which requires special or particular care from the side of astronauts.

Is there anything about living in space that you miss?

I am not a nostalgic person, so I hardly ever concentrate on what I miss of something, but if I think more positively about the next time that I will go to space and what I look forward to experiencing again, then it’s weightlessness. It’s a very unique feeling, the physical feeling of lightness and freedom and inhabiting space in three dimensions that is very very special. You can only experience it in space.

"There's coffee in that nebula"... ehm, I mean... in that #Dragon.”
Photo: ESA / NASA

You became famous for making the first espresso in space. How did that happen? What’s the story behind the espresso machine?

I was approached by a company who thought it’d be a great idea to send an espresso machine to space, and then another company who was really wanting to send the Italian espresso to space as a product, not a machine. And then this whole thing became this really cool project and the Italian Space Agency supported it, and they did an amazing job at it. They were a very young team of engineers in Torino, very motivated. Nobody believed at first that they’d be able to send it in time for my expedition, because it was a pretty short leave time. Things you want to fly to space usually need some time for not only the engineering aspects, but all the safety review and all the boards that need to approve it. And you’re talking about a machine that contains fluids at high temperature and high pressure — people get really nervous about safety. But they beat the odds and made it happen on time, barely in time, because I think it got up there in April and I was supposed to originally leave in May. But we were really excited.

What happened to the espresso machine since then?

I think the following crew were not great coffee drinkers, so I think it’s being stored, put aside in a storage location. It’s not in operational mode right now, but I think the next Italian astronaut who’s flying to space this summer, he plans on unpacking it and installing it again. He’s definitely getting some coffee capsules shipped in his personal little food allocation container.

Did you choose any particular food?

Yes, I had pouches made for me. We have this opportunity as ESA astronauts, most of the time, to actually get a couple of recipes developed for us in a limited quantity. So I actually had a couple of recipes developed based on nutritional value, so really balanced meals where I could just open the pouch and it would have a whole meal in there. One was a quinoa salad with mackerel and dried tomatoes, which I usually added some olive oil to. And the other one was a chicken dish with mushrooms and peas.

You’re quite popular for your social media posts from space. I was wondering, when you’re up on the ISS, how do you decide what to post?

One thing I did is pictures, so nice things you see from the window that you can take a picture of and you post it, and that’s usually what attracts the most attention on social media. And then there are the other things which require a little bit more work, although they actually attract less attention, which is reporting what you actually do. In fact, for at least the first half of one of my missions I made it a point to post almost daily blogs describing the experiments that I was doing and the different activities, although I decided they do not attract half as much attention as my pictures, unfortunately. But I did feel committed to not only share pictures but actually also content on what I was doing, so I tried to do that as well.

I loved your video taking a tour of the ISS toilet. What was the feedback?

Ah the toilet! Well, I don’t know what the feedback was when it was posted, because when you’re in space you’re a little bit in a bubble, so you don’t really know exactly what happens. But I still see it sometimes reposted, even nowadays that it’s been two years, so I think it was well received. It’s just something that everybody is always curious about, so every time somebody in the world writes about a blog or an article about life in space, they will link to it. I mean, not only to mine, other astronauts have done it, but I get my share.

Was the video your idea?

Yes, yes, that was my idea. You see, unfortunately it’s very difficult to do detailed videos about the work we do because when you do work, you don’t really have the time to do a video. When you do an experiment, you’re on a tight schedule. That experiment is meant to take an hour and you really only have an hour for it, so it’s really difficult to make extra time. Plus, it would not be very professional because if then you get delayed, people would say, why were you doing a video instead of working? So the only things that you can really take the time and document and try to make a nice video about are the things that are more like life onboard. That’s why you will mostly find videos about the toilet, the gym, and washing. These are things that people are curious about, but then on the other hand, they’re also the things that we had a chance to document because we can do that in our free time, without impacting work.

How are you trying to inspire more women to get into STEM?

I think you should not make an effort about that, you should just be yourself. If you are in a position like I am where you can be an example of somebody who did a career in STEM, I am one of those people who think that you are a role model by being not by talking. So I’m usually not somebody who really goes out and tries to dispense advice, also because I think it’s difficult to give advice to large groups of people. But I’m appreciative of the fact that I’m in a position of being a role model. So I just try to be myself and show that there are things that you can do, that they are an option, and then a young girl, young women, can take from it whatever they need and it’s useful for them.

What are you up to right now?

I have a number of tasks. I work at the European Astronaut Centre, which is in Cologne. And I’m responsible for an initiative which is called the Spaceship EAC Initiative. There’s an idea of growing consensus internationally that we would like some time in the second half of the next decade to have human missions to the Moon, to build a habitat around the Moon, in cislunar space, and then have human missions to the Moon. And so there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of technology development, but especially with things like operational concepts. The work is very much done with students. We just kind of scan ideas and see if an idea is good enough that we can then insert it into a wider European Space Agency ecosystem so it can be developed.

I’m also responsible for a project we’re doing here to build with a relatively low budget lunar simulator, an enclosed surface under a dome where we’re going to put a bed of regolith simulant and a habitat simulator, and also a demonstrator of carbon-free energy supply based on solar panels, electrolytes, and fuel cells. I’m also responsible for a project that looks more into radiation and radiation protection, which is potentially one of the big problems that we will encounter as we do spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit, because we’re not as protected from radiation as we are at the altitude where the space station is right now. And I’m also part of the working group that looks into cooperation with the Chinese Space Agency, which is something that we want to serve and develop in the next years.

What does the future of space travel look like in your opinion?

I think from the point of view of government agencies — NASA, ESA, JAXA, and so on — there’s focus, on the one hand, on continuing the International Space Station, but [on the other hand] I think there’s consensus now about the next step being the lunar vicinity. I think that’s what we’re going to see for the next decade. At the same time, of course, there’s proliferation of private initiatives and that’s a bit more difficult to say where they’re going. You have announcements of private initiatives concerned more with asteroids, Mars and I think it’s too hard for me to judge how realistic those are. It’s exciting but I don’t have enough insights to understand whether they’re feasible or not.

Would you ever like to go to Mars?

Of course I would like to, but realistically speaking I think this is probably something for the next generation at least of European astronauts. It’s going to be a little bit down the line. But as far as I get to stay in my career and [get] an opportunity to do something cislunar, for example, I will consider myself already very, very fortunate.