FT interviews astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti in space
The FT’s Peggy Hollinger and Clive Cookson talk to the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti about life on the International Space Station, the fallout from the Russian war on Earth, the dangers of space junk and of mega-constellations. Visit ft.com/spacelive
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I just wanted to start off with a very personal and very human question. To ask you, what is it like living in space? You were there as well in 2014, I think, so I'd be curious to know how has it changed since you were up there last time?
Yeah, Peggy. Thanks for the question. I think that what I see compared to seven years ago is that Space Station is even busier than it was back then. I mean, back then I had the feeling that there was so much going on, but now it's like an order of magnitude more. There are so many more experiments. There is so much more equipment. If you look around me you see how the density there. Everywhere there are cables, laptops, and that's just a sign of all the hardware, all the scientific equipment that is attached to all those cables and laptops.
So I think that the Space Station programme and all the international partners, including ESA, have really stepped up their game in terms of the sheer quantity and variety of activities that are on Space Station. That includes both pure scientific research, like really trying to understand a scientific phenomenon. But also a lot of technology demonstrations because we really want to make use of this amazing facility that we have in the International Space Station to develop mature test technologies that will enable us to explore space further beyond low-earth orbit.
Thank you. Clive.
Samantha, I'd like, please, to ask you a personal question as well, about the physiological and health effects of living in space. How do you maintain a daily rhythm of waking, sleeping, working, eating, relaxing?
Yeah. Thank you, Clive. Well, we are on our 24 hour schedule just like on the ground. Although, of course, we don't have the sunrise and sunset rhythm that we have on Earth, but we basically go by our watches. And we have a pretty routine day where we start in the morning around 7:30-ish. We start our workday. We have a conference that kind of get us all synced up with all the control centres around the world. Houston, Huntsville, Munich in Europe, Tsukuba, Moscow, we talk to all the teams that work with us throughout the day.
Then we get off to our job, we work for about 12 hours until 7:30 in the evening. That does include, and that speaks to your point of staying healthy, about 2 and 1/2 hours that are dedicated to workouts. In weightlessness a lot of our muscles really don't have to work much. You guys on the ground now, you have to work to sit up right, or stay upright, or to walk. We don't have to do that so we really have to work out every day to prevent muscle atrophy, but also bone loss. We have our meals that we try to take together as much as possible.
And then in the evenings, we get the chance to relax, make phone calls. So we try to, even up here, although this is our home and our workplace, we try to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Oh. Well, there are quite a few earthlings that could take that advice as well.
I'd like to turn to a slightly more topical subject. I'd like to know from you, Samantha, what impact has the Russian invasion of Ukraine had on your relations with your cosmonaut colleagues? And also, what future do you see for collaboration with Russia? How? How will we collaborate after this? And would we lose some important expertise if we do fail to collaborate?
Yes. When it comes to the Space Station, Space Station is very much an integrated vessel. There is no way to separate its function and its ability to continue to operate separating like the Russian or Nasa contributions, or the other international partners. So you really need this cooperation to continue, and stay healthy, and stay productive in order to maintain Space Station.
I think we all recognise how important Space Station is. I mean, it's like this, I like to call it humanity's outpost in space. Now, of course, there's also a Chinese Space Station. For a long time there was really only ISS and it's incredibly valuable because it's an incredibly unique and capable facility. We're not going to have something exactly like a Space Station for a long time to come. So we all recognise that, yes, it's a time of conflict. Yes, we are devastated by what is happening on Earth.
But we also know that we have something precious that we need to protect and preserve so we focus on that, both on the professional level. All the interactions that all the teams that support Space Station have between agencies. And certainly up here in space where we are one crew and we focus on our friendship, and on our shared commitment to Space Station.
Samantha, as you will know all too well, the amount of potentially dangerous debris in orbit is increasing the whole time. Has the threat of this extra junk affected life on the Space Station? And following that up, what action do you think the world should take to limit the growth in space debris or even reduce it?
Yes. For sure this is something that gets constantly monitored. There are assets on the ground of situational awareness where debris that might come into collision with Space Station is tracked and we're very conservative. If there is even a remote chance that such a piece of debris will hit Space Station the ground controllers will work together, again, Houston and Moscow will work together to plan and avoidance manoeuvre.
So what happens here on Space Station, we are usually told, hey, guys, we are tracking a conjunction. That's how they're called. And as we get closer to the time where this conjunction might happen they will decide, OK, it's clearing up or well, we do have to move Space Station out of the way. Then they will turn on the engines and we will gently move toward slightly higher or lower orbit to get out of the way. But in general, it is indeed a serious problem. I mean, the orbits around the Earth, they're almost like a natural resource. Right? That is available out there and you have to preserve for use for future generations as well.
I kind of like to compare it to aeronautical flight, right? I think somewhere in the 1940s, so mid of the last century, it was recognised that traffic was going to increase more and more. So countries came together and developed rules of air traffic management rules so that we can all have millions of people flying every day safely around the world. For space it's kind of like the same thing. I know that there is an inter-agency debris coordination committee that provides guidelines for agencies and private actors to follow and certainly that is valuable.
Technology is part of the solution is going to reside in technology. I know ESA has an initiative for a demonstrator that is going to fly. It was like purchased let's say, by ESA as a service contract from a Swiss company I believe. That will demonstrate the ability to launch a device that will be able to dock to a piece of debris that's been on orbit for almost a decade and safely de-orbit it, bring it back to Earth.
So part of the solution is regulatory. Let's all plan our satellites and the operations of our satellites so that they do not stay in orbit. They do not explode. They do not collide, so they do not pose a threat. Then we need to clean up the debris that is already out there and that definitely has a technological solution to it.
Samantha, it's Peggy again. You talked about how busy the International Space Station is, how much busier it is since the time you were there in 2014. But it's been up there awhile and we know that, perhaps, there's a next step in space exploration beyond the International Space Station. What is your view of what that should be?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's two aspects to it. I mean, I think that there's going to be a smooth transition in low-earth orbit to private actors. There's some US companies that are definitely leading the way there, but hopefully there will also be more and more European actors who want to step in that area of creating space stations or platforms for research in microgravity in low-earth orbit and those are going to be the successors of the ISS.
Then we have to look beyond that. Going back to the moon, first to cislunar space and then on the surface of the moon with obviously the long term goal of eventually getting to Mars. ESA, the European Space Agency, is very much a part of that. ESA provides this service module for the Orion spacecraft that is going to bring astronauts to lunar orbit. So that is a complex and quite significant piece of hardware that ESA has developed involving seven countries across Europe.
There is gateway. Gateway is going to be a Space Station, smaller than ISS, but much, much further out in orbit around the moon. ESA is providing the so-called international habitat. So basically the main habitation module as well as other components. So this international cooperation is definitely continuing. It's one of the great legacies I think of Space Station, that we showed that works, and it's productive, and it helps protect and preserve such long-term programmes over the years that are necessary for such complex developments.
Samantha, it's Clive again. The private sector is obviously going to play a very important role in this expansion of space activities that you've described. I'd like you to say briefly how you see the role of corporations and companies in space? And in particular, are you worried, as some people are, about the growing mega constellations in low-Earth orbit and their impact on the environment?
Yeah, I think that the impact of mega constellations is certainly something that needs to be managed. It goes a little bit back to what I mentioned earlier about the necessity of managing the orbits, kind of like on the ground we manage the airspace. But of course, they are also a source of potential for economic growth and benefits for society. Everything always brings potential benefits and then potential risks that need to be managed. But in general, I think it's very exciting that there is so much interest in the private sector.
And in fact, I'm very hopeful that there will be more and more investment in the sector because I think that liberates ideas, and potential business opportunities, and potential for innovation. Potential for driving down the costs of access to space, of operating in space, so that, again, more and more actors can enter this sector and participate with new ideas, new products, new services. So I think it's a virtuous cycle that I believe has started already and I'm hopeful that it will continue to accelerate.
Thank you, Samantha. It's Peggy here and I think we're on to our final question. So I'd like to know from you, I mean, you're a wonderful example to everybody, male and female, but we do know there are still fewer female than male astronauts. Only two women and five men on the station. How can female participation, how should we increase female participation in space?
Yeah. I do have a little bit of a more positive view, I have to say. In my Dragon crew, the vehicle that I came up with, it was four of us and it was two of us were women, so 50 per cent. The Nasa Astronaut Corps is incredibly diverse. The European Space Agency, we have not had a selection for over a decade. So we haven't had time to update or our composition and catch up a little bit with the development of society, but we have a selection that is ongoing now. And from the number of female candidates and the quality of applications that we have received, we know that there is going to be a lot more women in the European Astronaut Corps as well.
Of course, as an astronaut, it's my duty and my privilege to reach out, especially to young people, and try to make them excited about space and Stem in general. And of course, hopefully also more and more women will consider that career path and become future colleagues of ours in a capacity or another. But at the same time I'm quite happy about the current trend.
Yeah. I think we need to wrap up in a, well, in a couple of seconds. So just the last word from my side to really thank you, Samantha. It was always fantastic to hear you and to listen to you. You are such a role model. I can only repeat what I said already some time ago. So many people are inspired down here on Earth by what you do and how you do it. And also being a female colleague of ours inspires also a lot of our female young candidates. Young girls who want to become an astronaut. It's really beautiful to see.
Maybe just a word on my side, gender balance diversity is a top priority of ESA, as you know, in agenda 25. I'm doing a selection of the final candidates in a couple of months and this is certainly on top of my agenda as well. So thank you Samantha, it was a great pleasure. Thank you. Continue well in your work and great applause down here from London.