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Preflight Interview: Roberto Vittori
02.23.05
The International Space Station Expedition 11 crew interview with Flight Engineer 2 Roberto Vittori.

ESA Astronaut Roberto VittoriImage to right: ESA Astronaut and Expedition 11 Flight Engineer 2 Roberto Vittori. Credit: NASA

Q: You have a job that a lot of people dream about having when they were kids. Is being an astronaut what you always wanted to do when you grew up?

A: I grew up in a very small town in Italy, the central part of Italy, not far from Rome, and when I was a kid I was playing in the woods, playing with the other children, playing soccer. Flying an aircraft, or even becoming an astronaut, was something that was attracting my interest, my imagination, but I would not have ever thought that in the end, step-by-step, I would have had this opportunity. All this happen slowly, especially after the time when I start working for the Air Force, starting from the Air Force Academy, through the military pilot license and then the test pilot license, and finally, as a coincidence, in 1995 getting the test pilot's license with the Navy here in the States, Maryland, Patuxent River, the Navy base. The field trip brought us to JSC -- that is a routine visit that the Navy does each year for each class. I still remember being here with my friends and colleagues, Navy, Air Force, American colleagues, and they were all very much interested because after being a test pilot here in the States you have an opportunity to apply and the chances to become an astronaut. So I still remember myself being here in Houston, having a beer with them. I was thinking, bad luck that I am not American, because in Italy it's very rare to have a need for new astronauts. At that time, in '95, there was already one astronaut and I was not seeing any possibility in the near future. So I was drinking beer, looking around and I was thinking, "Well, next, next life maybe I will have an opportunity." Instead, I went back to Italy after the completion of the training and start working for the test center. In 1998 the Italian Space Agency felt the need to have two other astronauts. So I applied and here I am.

Tell me about your childhood. Was being a pilot, being an Air Force pilot, something that you wanted to do?

Well, being a pilot was something that was attracting my fantasy as a kid, but again I could never image that there could have been an opportunity for me. Being a pilot, being an astronaut, is something very much operational. I do remember thinking about this kind of activity as something very, very interesting but until I actually got selected by the Air Force, I always thought that my career, my future, was more on the theoretical part. So after high school I started university and I was concentrating on studying physics, and I was seeing myself more in that part of, let's call it exploration, the theoretical exploration, more than from an operational perspective.

As you look back on your life, do you see a person or a couple of persons that were the big inspirations for you, or your heroes as you were coming along?

For the transition, the day that I switched from physics to the Air Force, I think was just coincidence. My application for the Air Force initially started because I tried to apply as an engineer. But then in the same piece of paper you have the opportunity to apply both as an engineer and as a pilot, and I just decide to put a check on the pilot side. They finished the selection for pilots first and I got selected. When they finished the selection for the engineers I was already flying. I still remember the day when I was told that I got selected also as an engineer. I was asked to choose whether to continue on the operational part, being an Air Force officer, or to continue with the aeronautical engineering study. I was almost sure that the right choice was to continue as an engineer. I slept over it and the next day I said, well, I like to continue to fly. Here I am continuing through the operational part of the military career through the different level of military preparation. And finally, as I said before, the test pilot's license and the selection as an astronaut.

For most people, particularly since the loss of the Columbia Shuttle and its crew a couple of years ago, we're aware that spaceflight is dangerous and we assume that astronauts understand that and are prepared to take that risk. I wonder why you think the risk of this job is worth taking?

This is a very difficult question because you get into something that is not rational. As human beings as we perceive ourselves, our lives, our family our, our world. Before becoming a pilot I had a profound interest in theoretical exploration. Then I found myself capable also to perform operational task and I start being interested to explore initially from an aeronautical perspective, as a test pilot, flying machines that step-by-step are trying to expand the envelope. Now, I'm an astronaut. In all this there is a risk. Risk is life. Without risk, in a way, it is impossible to progress. So whether this risk is accept or not is a legitimate question. In my view in consideration of the meaning of the word exploration, that is something that I personally found extremely motivating to continue toward the future. I believe it's an essential part of what we do.

While it's one thing for you to accept the risk on your own behalf, it's another thing for your loved ones to do so. How does your family deal with the risk of your job?

That is also a question that has no answer. Each of us has a different reaction to the risk that may in a way have an impact on loved ones. For the last mission, my wife was with me until we got to the rocket. The best picture that I have of the entire spaceflight is the picture when the photo, a photographer capture her eyes while I was in the bus, wearing already the Sokol suit, a few meters before stopping the bus and going to the rocket. Every time I look those eyes I see that she was with me, sharing the risk, but also the privilege of being part of such an endeavor.

This flight is going to be the third time an Italian astronaut has gone to the International Space Station. How important is it to the European Space Agency and to the Italian people to have one of their own on board the station that they're helping to build?

Flying to the International Space Station, being present on board of the International Space Station, is certainly essential in a moment in which we are trying to finish the assembly of the Station, bringing Columbus [the European laboratory module] up to space. Certainly we need to work more toward the public. Sometimes it's difficult to convey the enthusiasm in performing such an endeavor to the general public, especially because sometime this is seen as routine. So having astronauts flying to the Station for Europe is very good for a simple reason: Europe is unity and diversity. In this sense, each of us can give a different flavor, can give a different perspective. So it is important for ESA to continue to have astronaut present on board of the International Space Station. That is a treasure for us, and for future generations, that is about to be completed, that is about to start the moment where it will be fully utilized. Utilization of the International Space Station is what we have to concentrate upon now. The best way to do that is to make the Station available to everybody. The mission in which I will participate is a little example, a practical example, of what I'm saying because I will bring up about 20 experiments that are ideas coming from university research centers and small industry. That is a way to get the public closer to space.

Let's talk about the goals of your flight.

The technical goal of the Soyuz mission is to, to substitute the Soyuz. We'll go up with TMA-6 and I will come back down with TMA-5 and Expedition 10. I'll be on board seven days, and the goal during those seven days for me will be to perform Italian and ESA experiments.

Let's talk about those. Now, we know that the International Space Station is, for one thing, a laboratory for experiments in human life sciences, but in other areas of science too. Tell me about the science that is on your program. What different kinds of experiments are you going to be doing?

I flew once already, three years ago. I came back thinking about the Station from a very specific perspective. Certainly life science is one important part of the potential of the Station. Another is as a technology demonstrator, to develop technology. Today we have satellites that can do science research in space but the Station will give us a unique opportunity to use the Station as a test bed. I call it "technology demonstrator" translating from Italian. In reality it's more like technology development, meaning, I think, about sciences or instruments that I plan to use in the future in space -- I build it, I go to the Station, and I see if those work. One particular example is a sensor, the sensor called Lazio. This sensor is trying to find hypothetical correlation between earthquakes and variation of the electromagnetic field in low Earth orbit. The original idea was to launch a microsatellite with an on-board sensor. But the Station is giving us an opportunity to have an intermediate step. If I launch a microsatellite with a sensor, the problem is that the microsatellite and the sensor, will never come back; we will never be able to interact with it directly. On the Station it's different because you can have astronauts that can bring up the sensor; you can even bring it down if you need to, or you can have a real time operation on the sensor. So the Station is a test bed to develop technology that can be used in microgravity and in space. In addition to this, certainly there are all the other possibilities for science that has been discussed many times.

The science program that you're taking to the Station is a result of participation and cooperation from people and agencies from all over Europe. Tell me more about all the people who are involved in getting this program together.

The program started from an idea, a very simple idea. Space is getting closer and closer to the final user. Thinking three-dimensionally is something that today is already possible to do. Flying in space is no longer something far from the daily life. It was a simple idea about two years ago, and then the region where I am -- the name is Lazio, it's around Rome -- started to understand that there were many areas there with a potential or an interest in space -- universities, research centers, small industry and big industry. So there has been an agreement between the region and the minister of research to create an aerospace district. Around the concept of aerospace district, this idea of participating to a spaceflight starts slowly to become a reality. Starting from this part of the initiative, then other pieces from Italy and Europe start to show interest. So there is a part of the experimental program that has the roots in the region, but also interest that slowly was added from other part of Italy or Europe.

Did it help in pulling this all together that you were able to point out that you had already flown to this Space Station yourself before?

In reality, the astronauts flying to space are not the most important part of this initiative. The most important part is that there are universities that have an idea, young people that have an idea, and in a very short time they are able to present an experiment that can fly in space. Certainly my experience was able to contribute to them because sometime it's difficult to depict yourself in microgravity. So, at the beginning of the study of the experimental package, interacting with me was in a way useful because the way we operate in microgravity is different from operating on Earth. I was simply helping provide advice on what to do and what not to do in light of the peculiarity of working in microgravity.

The International Space Station is a project that's aimed at making advances in the field of engineering and in a range of science and even some in global relations, as well as, on its surface, in space exploration. Roberto, what do you think is the most valuable contribution that is coming out of the International Space Station program?

The Station, for me, is a bridge for the future. Living on board the International Space Station, working on board the International Space Station is, I believe, something extremely demanding for the astronaut, for the individual. I have a lot of respect for, all the astronauts who spend a lot of time in microgravity on board the Station. Sometime we come back and we try to quantify the achievement, the science, the results, but sometimes it's difficult to do that clearly. The Station is a bridge toward the future. We don't know what the future is. We do know where that bridge is. To walk on this bridge is very difficult, but in consideration and in anticipation of what will be the future will be, being a part of this transition is very motivating.

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