PAOLO NESPOLI, THE ENGINEER WITH HIS HEAD IN THE STARS
He is a space veteran, but his enthusiasm is the same as his very first time; Paolo Nespoli is preparing for his third mission, which will take place soon after his 60th birthday. “I am happy to go back up: in space age weighs less,” Nespoli affirms; he will celebrate his 60th birthday on April 6, 2017, and will become the oldest European astronaut to go into space. For the moment, the European record belongs to the Frenchman Jean Loup Chrétien, who flew on the Mir with the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1997 at the age of 59 after three missions with Soyuz.
The oldest astronaut in the world to go into space remains John Glenn, who was also the first American to go into earthly orbit on February 20, 1962, and returned at the age of 77 with the STS-95 mission in 1998.
The Milanese astronaut will be employed on the International Space Station (ISS) for a mission that will leave from the secret Russian space-launch site of Bajkonur in Kazakhstan on May 30, 2017, for six months in space. It will be his third experience in orbit and the fourth long-term mission for the Italian Space Agency. In the last weeks, Roberto Battiston, the President of the ISA, explained that the ISA is working toward the goal of having an Italian astronaut take on the role of commander of the ISS. Italy currently has four astronauts “in service:” Paolo Nespoli himself, Roberto Vittori, Lica Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti. Nespoli has proudly declared that “I am an engineer, but I have never stopped dreaming,” and it is difficult to determine the boundary between dream and reality for someone like him, who has witnessed a number of important moments in space history, from the resumption of the construction of the space station to the inauguration of the Shuttle and the celebration in space of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight. The story of Paolo Nespoli is one of numerous successes, one after the other, after a long waiting period. His life as an astronaut began 26 years ago, when he was selected in 1989 as one of the eight astronaut candidates in the Italian Space Agency and therefore part of the body of astronauts in the European Space Agency. Passionate about computer technology, underwater immersion and flight (he has a license as a tourist pilot), Nespoli has worked since 1991 to train European astronauts at the ESA center in Cologne and subsequently in the preparation of the on-board computers on the old Russian space station Mir.
In 1998 he was finally admitted in the training program at NASA’S Johnson Space Center in Houston together with another Italian astronaut, Roberto Vittori. But the wait for a space flight was still long, due to the suspension of Shuttle flights after the tragedy of the Columbia. For this engineer with a past in the army, his first mission only arrived on October 23-November 7, 2007. “Esperia,” jointly managed by the ESA and the ASI, was an important mission that signaled the resumption of work for the enlargement of the International Space Station, with the installation of Node 2 (the Harmony module) built by Thales Alenia Space in Turin, to which were connected the European laboratory Columbus and the Japanese laboratory Kibo.
His second mission, Magisstra, also provided a record in that it was the first six-month mission carried out by an Italian; it began on December 15, 2010, and concluded after 152 days in May 2011, and for the first time saw two Italians on the Space Station when Roberto Vittori arrived on board. Until a few months ago, Paolo Nespoli also was the Italian with the most days spent off our planet—174 and nine hours—a record which is now held by Samantha Cristoforetti, with 199 days. Among his records, the engineer also can boast of being the first European astronaut to twitter from space. His Twitter messages went viral, in part due to his spectacular photos of our planet as seen from the orbital laboratory. During the press conference to announce his third mission in space, which will launch in 2017, Paolo Nespoli spoke about the use of social networks on the part of many astronauts as a means of diffusing news and images to the public that document his own voyage: “Sharing photos from space will serve to prevent me from feeling alone.”