To Space and Beyond!

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On Tuesday night I was lucky enough to go to the Big Space Night being run at the National Museum of Scotland by the Edinburgh Science Festival.  Earlier on Tuesday Tim Peake successfully became the first Briton to be launched to the ISS as part of the European Space Agency, and to celebrate they had organised a live feed of his arrival on the ISS and Q&A with Samantha Cristoforetti.  Unfortunately due to the late start of the event Samantha was only able to appear for 10 minutes and there was no opportunity for audience Q&A.  This post will give a brief run down on Samantha, as well as the Principia mission that Tim Peake is involved in.

The ESA website is a great place to start learning about Samantha Cristoforetti, as well as space travel in general.  Samantha graduated from Technische Universität Munich with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, specialising in aerospace propulsion and lightweight structures.  Her thesis was in solid rocket propellants.  After this she joined the Italian Air Force Academy and completed Jet Pilot training before being assigned to a Bomber wing in Italy reaching the rank of Captain, logging over 500 hours flying six types of military aircraft.  She was selected as an ESA astronaut in 2009, completing basic training in 2010 and was part of the Future mission in 2014/15.

Training of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti at NASA JSC fac

Samantha training for Futura.  Copyright ESA-S.Corvaja, 2014

Among her many achievements, she is the first person to brew an espresso in space, and has completed the longest single space flight of any female.  Samantha also likes hiking, yoga and is a blogger, and has a soft spot for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as she is an avid sci fi fan.  She apparently has the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything printed on her uniform.

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Samantha Cristoforetti Copyright NASA

For Samantha watching a colleagues launch is even more nerve wracking than being in the rocket itself.  Her trip as part of the Futura mission was her first in to space, and once the excitement and nerves have settled down and you fall in to daily routine the toughest challenge initially is the weightlessness.  And it’s not just the nausea you would be expecting.  Everything that you are used to doing on Earth is more challenging without gravity.  Your work routine needs to be adapted to deal with zero gravity as everything floats away.  Nothing is ever where you left it.  Imagine where the keys to the Soyuz could end up!  You need to learn to fly, pushing yourself gently from wall to wall.

But when it all comes down to it, life on board seems like just another job on site, they even get weekends off!  They have slightly later alarms, but the day starts with a team pre-start meeting, a link to control centres on Earth, where they go through the plan for the day ahead and any changes that may have occurred.  After this the working day begins in earnest, with the crew completing any number of maintenance tasks, experiments and sometimes EVAs and docking.  With the odd spot on a cooking channel.

When reflecting on how being an astronaut has changed her view on life, Samantha doesn’t see the Earth as fragile but rather as something that has existed for billions of years.  It is humans who are fragile, barely hanging on, and we must take care of each other and Earth.

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Copyright NASA

The Future missions scientific programme included experiments in physical science, biology and human physiology, as well as radiation research and technology demonstrations, all experiments that cannot be conducted on Earth, requiring a microgravity laboratory.  As well as this Samantha was able to share her journey with children back on Earth, with a comprehensive programme put together that included numerous science experiments and talks about regular exercise and nutrition.

Tim Peake is involved in the Principia mission, with science an important part of the mission.  He will perform more than 30 experiments for the ESA and assist in other ongoing research projects on the station.  Tim#s particular passions are quantum physics and cosmology.  Various school activities are running alongside Tim’s mission that have elements of science and technology, including computer coding, growing plants and maths demonstrations.

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Tim Peake arriving on the ISS Copyright ESA

Samantha and Tim are great ambassadors for both STEM and space, and a really accessible point for children to become more involved in these fields.  The ESA website has lots of collateral on both missions, with multimedia available regarding their training, missions and the research that will take place, as well as inspiring children.  The UK Space Agency also has a YouTube channel.  I would encourage any of you to check it out with any aspiring scientist or engineer, and follow Tim’s journey over the next 6 months.

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