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Preflight Interview: Roberto Vittori, Mission Specialist
03.24.11
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European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, mission specialist. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: In reality I never took the decision to become an astronaut; it just happened. And the way it happened was a coincidence. Obviously since I was a child I was always thinking with great interest about flying aircraft or flying in space, but I never thought it was going to be possible one day. The way the opportunity arrived was through the Italian air force. In fact, I went to the academy, I became pilot here in the U.S., Reese Air Force Base, Lubbock, Texas—now the base is closed—that was the year ’89, and then I came back in ’95 at Patuxent River for the Test Pilot School, and at the end of the Test Pilot School it is tradition that the school takes a tour at NASA, and I was with them. I remember coming here with my class, my TPS class, and all my colleagues, American colleagues, were thinking about becoming an astronaut, and I was thinking, bad luck that I am not U.S.—obviously in Italy it is not that easy to have opportunities for astronauts. So different from the U.S., where every other year or routinely you have a new class of astronauts, for us it’s kind of very rare and unique opportunity. I never thought that opportunity would have been available to me. Then I went back after my TPS, Test Pilot School, I went back to Italy and two years later here it is—the Italian Space Agency was looking for two astronauts. I applied and I got selected together with my friend and colleague Paolo Nespoli.

I want to take you back to your childhood; tell me about your hometown and what it was like for your growing up in Italy.

I grew up in a very small town very small. The name is Bomarzo. Bomarzo originally meant “City of Mars.” Very small, in the middle of a very beautiful forest, countryside, and I grew up playing soccer outside my school; I was very good in defense and I loved playing in the woods with my friends and that has been my childhood. Then when I reached the age of the decision, after my high school, I decide to start to study physics I left my small town and that remains every time in my thoughts. My parents still live there and as a coincidence there is a very in the Italian cities, especially those small cities, there is a tradition: there’s one special day that is the festivity of the city, and that special day is the 24th of April; my first spaceflight I flew in April exactly around the 24th, the second apparently I will fly in April also for STS-134 and that obviously keep me very much linked with my origins.

Did you get a chance to see it from space on your previous flights?

That is a good question because my city is so small that it’s impossible to clearly identify it. I was able to identify other geographical contour and take a picture in the middle hoping to get my small village in it unfortunately the clouds…didn’t succeed so I will get another try this time.

Do you have a feeling that that place and those people there helped make you the person that you are today?

I spent 18 years in that little town and obviously I bring with me many lesson learned from my childhood, playing in the woods, staying in the middle of the nature, and something that I believe I brought with me in space is this very strange sensation in comparing technology with nature in judging or pondering the future with the past, and obviously to start from a small village and go for this very special path that’s got me through the Italian air force to become a pilot and then a test pilot and then the Italian Space Agency, European Space Agency, an astronaut, to fly to the International Space Station, to have an opportunity to see the Earth from space, and then to land to go back to this small village, to go back to the region, obviously all this is making you feel a very strong motivation to continue to look for the future, to build the future for myself, for my, children, for all of us, but also a very strong feeling and sensation of the importance of who we are and all the little things that are around us and sometimes we don’t properly evaluate. I will continue to work for the future, bringing and taking with me every time my roots and regions.

The part of your job that you’re about to, to take on, the “flying in space” part of being an astronaut, is a part that we know can be dangerous, so, Roberto, I’m interested to know what is it that you think that we get or what do we learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?

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European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, STS-134 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Risk I link the word “risk” with “probability.” There is a probability of something that could go wrong in anything that you do in life I do not necessarily concentrate on the risk associated with spaceflight, especially because living with NASA, working with NASA, I see that there is a systematic approach to protect the safety of spaceflights and I would consider, I would incline to consider this incredible effort of the NASA community as reducing the risk associated with spaceflight to the minimum possible. I feel perfectly at ease in getting ready to climb on the rockets of the shuttle and fly to the International Space Station with my crew.

Roberto, you’re a member of the shuttle mission STS-134’s crew. Would you summarize the overall goals of your flight and tell me what your main responsibilities are going to be?

134, it’s almost unbelievable today to realize that I am here, ready to fly on STS-134. In fact there is a long story behind my assignment that goes back with my origin. I was initially a student I was trying to get a major in physics, and then at a certain point I switched my path and I went and became a pilot and then a test pilot with the Italian air force, but my passion for physics continued all along and soon after I achieved my degree as a test pilot I went back and completed my degree at the university—it was in Perugia—and I finished my studies and ironically, my teacher was a professor [Roberto] Battiston that is the deputy chief of the AMS [Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer] experiment. After this long career, air force and then NASA—I started with NASA in ’98—I found myself on possibly what could be the last flight, and on board the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that is the merging of my passions, physics and flying aircraft or flying in space.

And in this case you’re going to the space station with this European hardware. You’re even going to arrive at the station and find a fellow European astronaut, a fellow countryman, Paolo Nespoli, who’s going to be there. Do you have any thoughts about the significance of having two representatives of the European and Italian space agencies?

With Paolo I have another very peculiar and special coincidence. We started in fact together in ’98, and between the two of us, every time there was a competition, obviously we’re in the same class, both Italians, both on the same track and the way things went I soon completed my NASA training I went and had the opportunity to fly in Russia. That was 2002 then a second time in Russia in 2005. Paolo instead had the privilege to fly with the shuttle on STS-120, and here we are switching sides now Paolo as we speak is in Russia ready to launch for his expedition, and here I am in line to fly on STS-134, and we’ll meet in space. That is unique. It’s a beautiful opportunity. We started together and we converge together on board of the station.

And I, probably it shows the maturity of the European space program to now have two astronauts in space together.

Obviously the other situation that the life on the line is back in ’98, when I got selected, was also the year that the European astronaut corps was born at that time we were if I recall correctly 16, many different nationalities we have been working together. Now we have 16 astronauts in the new class, and obviously to have the opportunity for the year 2011 to have two European astronauts, both of Italian nationality, is something that makes me proud.

One of the most important experiments that’s being delivered to the space station, certainly on your flight, is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which you referred to a minute ago. Let me get you to fill that in for us. Tell me about the AMS and what it does in space.

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European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, STS-134 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, prepares for a training session in the fixed-base shuttle mission simulator (SMS) in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer for me is obviously as a person, very specific importance with my role in space. I will be R1 that means that I will have the responsibility with the shuttle robotic arm to take it from the payload bay and offer to the station. But behind that specific operational task there is a very long history. I started studying physics; not only that, my interest was antimatter. Antimatter is something very special. When matter and antimatter meet with each other they null each other and they create a huge amount of energy. One of the deepest secrets of the universe is why in our universe we see matter and not antimatter. With this in mind, I started about 20 or 25 years ago to study physics, to think about space, to think about the universe, and the specific of the search of the antimatter was one of my main and deep interests. It may appear as a very strange coincidence that today I would be the one to take this unique piece of hardware, take it from the bay of the shuttle and give it to install on the station, and throughout my studies, despite my air force career got me more than once off track from studying physics, I always have remained with this deep interest for the mystery of the universe. Something else that I like to underline is this unique piece of device that is AMS, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer it is something that we don’t know exactly what will give to us. In fact, it has flown already once, back in if I am not mistaken back in [1998] and in that case we could not find any trace of antimatter. The question remains whether we’ll be able to find something this second time around, keeping the experiment for years in space, because when the first time AMS flew was only for the duration of the shuttle space flight it was only for about two weeks. Now we’ll have more time and will we be able to find trace of antimatter? And if not, maybe we can, we’ll be able to unfold another secret of the universe that currently our scientists are facing, what they call dark matter or dark energy. In simple words, apparently our universe is not the way it looks if we do calculations of motions of galaxy there must be something else, some other huge mass or huge source of energy that we do not see neither with our eyes nor with our instruments. If that would be true, maybe AMS will be able to detect some of direct or indirect effect of the presence of such energy and such a mass and looking to perspective, those are the real questions that I hope we could leave a contribution to unfold.

How does AMS, how is it designed to do that? What does it do once that you’ve installed it on the station?

AMS is a very complex device that has the capability to detect particles or antiparticles. When a particle goes through AMS there are a number of sensors and devices that are capable to recognize the type of particle and energy then working on that data the scientists will be able to understand where this particle was coming from and which kind of information is it bringing to us after maybe many years or thousands of years of travel throughout the universe. In other words, the AMS, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer in a way could be compared using a very simple image like a maybe a lens with a lens we can see what is very small in a way AMS is also sort of lens that is capable to give an identity, a name, a history, an interpretation to those small particles that are bombarding our planet from many distant places of the universe.

Can you characterize, for the non-physicists among us, what is the significance of what it may find in searching for dark matter and antimatter?

The significance is to start to have a little bit more awareness of who we are. One of the fundamental questions is from where our universe is coming. The big-bang, if the big-bang is true, why is there no symmetry between matter and antimatter? The other recent question is, if the universe is not all that we see but there is something that is dark behind the scenes that we cannot see or measure what is the meaning of it? Those are very fundamental questions that have a huge impact in our understanding on who we are and where we are going.

And AMS has quite a strong European pedigree in terms of the hardware and the background of the experiment, doesn’t it?

AMS obviously is under one name, Samuel Ting, Nobel Prize for physics, and he has been the leader of the first AMS and the second. Europe is even offering a very significant contribution—Italy, if I am not mistaken, is one of the major contributors maybe the second, and obviously this is underlining our participation and contribution not only to the International Space Station but also to the science on board of it.

You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that you will be the arm operator, the shuttle arm operator, for the installation of AMS. Can you tell me a little bit more about the procedure for getting it out of the payload bay and installed up on the station truss.

The procedure is very simple. The complexity is on how to operate the arm to achieve that objective. The procedure is simple it’s simply the AMS is in the bay and the arm operator, that is a mechanical arm, just has the responsibility to grab it, and then I release it and then I raise it up and offer it to the International Space Station operator, which by the way is our pilot Gregory Johnson—Box, his nickname—he will be on the station side, he will be operating the station arm it will be some kind of shake hands in space, and I will be offering AMS, he will be taking it and install it on the truss of the International Space Station. It’s another symbolic but very much significant image that is underlining the cooperation in space.

During this mission and your crew’s time on the International Space Station there’ll be some spacewalks going on, there’ll be cargo that’ll be moving back and forth, a standard sort of mission profile that’s laid out to keep the International Space Station going on behalf of the international partners, and STS-134 is the last scheduled flight of shuttle Endeavour, your ship. What are your thoughts about this space shuttle’s place in the history of human spaceflight and how the work of the shuttle program is going to be remembered?

You mention EVA. I will not be involved in EVA and that’s a motivation for me to start maybe considering something else for my future. I have had already two spaceflight opportunities on the Soyuz, looking forward to fly on the shuttle I have never done an EVA so thinking about my possible future, obviously that will be a unique experience that maybe I would have a chance in the future to try myself. Thinking about the future of the shuttle we all know that STS-134 may be one of the last, if not the last spaceflight, and I feel in a way missing something when I start thinking about the shuttle retiring because the future—I am a pilot and a test pilot—the future of flying aircraft cannot be anything else than flying higher and faster similarly to what the shuttle’s doing future hypersonic aircraft and spacecraft will very much be similar to the way the shuttle flies. In seeing the shuttle retiring without seeing what come next seems that it’s missing something. I look with anticipation to read on the newspaper to the future projects that I know that are all there. We know how to fly hypersonic aircraft in aerospace, or in space and I feel that the time is mature to go beyond the 15-thousand feet and the typical speed of a current aircraft. I look with anticipation to the day that transportation of future generation will arrive and the retiring of the shuttle is only a temporary interruption of a very exciting future that is about to happen.

While we’ve got you on the subject of history, we also note that you’ll be flying the mission during roughly the same period of time as the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin as well as the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight. What are your thoughts about being on orbit yourself so close to these milestones in human spaceflight?

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European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, STS-134 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

It’s a mixed feeling. If you think about you are in space on such important anniversary, in a way you have a sensation that time goes by very quickly. On the other side you look at the future with excitement because 50 years is nothing, and therefore if we try to judge how huge the progresses that we have done in the last 50 years and you project yourself to the next 50 years, I have three kids and obviously I continue to try to motivate them to be involved in technology and space because that’s my future, their future, and the future of humanity.

Let me ask you about that 50 years in the future then. If we’ve come this far in the past 50 years, where do you think we will be 50 years from now?

My personal bet is on aerospace, as I was saying. I will be inclined to consider the next technological breakthrough to allow for engine capability and flying capability for machines to become hypersonic vehicles to reduce time to go from one place to the other it, increase options for commercial initiatives back and forth from the low Earth orbit, something that we are already witnessing that will be the area where I would personally be most interested in, and I will be personally concentrating my mental energy and my resources. Obviously I also look with great interest anything that goes moon and beyond but if I would have to take a pick and make a choice as a pilot and test pilot, I will concentrate on the hypersonic part.