Why Do We Go to Space and How to Flush Toilets There: Record-breaking Astronaut Explains

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Samantha Cristoforetti, wearing her blue European Space Agency flight suit, meeting with students and fans in Tel Aviv.
Samantha Cristoforetti, wearing her blue European Space Agency flight suit, meets with students and fans in Tel Aviv.Credit: Michal Roche-Ben Ami, Tel Aviv University

"That's my story and I'm sticking to it. 200 days in space," Samantha Cristoforetti, the record-breaking Italian astronaut, told a rapt Israeli audience at Tel Aviv University Wednesday.

Cristoforetti is visiting Israel for Israeli Space Week, in honor of Israel’s first astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, who was killed with six other crew members when the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up on reentry to Earth's atmosphere in 2003. Slight and short-haired, and dressed in her European Space Agency flight suit, Cristoforetti – a sci-fi buff whose records include the longest single space flight by a woman, if only because she got stuck in space – describes in simple but evocative terms the wonder, and tedium, of long sojourns in outer space.

"For me, when this became a reality, it was the greatest adventure you could possibly imagine," she said in her Italian-accented English, describing the takeoff on November 23, 2014 on the Futura Mission. (She would only return on June 11, 2015.) "We were sitting on the very top of the rocket that suddenly came alive and really lit up the steppes of Kazakhstan."

It was her first time in space – and being weightless. "For the first half hour, I had a strong feeling that I was falling towards the control panel in front of me," she told students and fans gathered for a Q&A at Tel Aviv Univeristy.

Thus Cristoforetti, with Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and NASA astronaut Terry Virts, zipped dizzily around the earth four times until rendezvousing with the International Space Station orbiting the planet. (No, with all due respect to Hollywood, rendezvousing spacecraft is neither easy,obvious nor accompanied by synthetic music.) There they joined three other orbiting astronauts, bringing the crew of the football field-sized International Space Station, which took some 10 years to build, to six.

Cristoforetti's main job: To run scientific experiments under conditions of micro-gravity.

She jokes that in space, she was just a "lab technician." Some lab tech - Cristoforetti is also a jet fighter pilot with the Italian Air Force and an engineer, schooled at the Technical University of Munich.

Samantha Cristoforetti getting her hair cut by NASA astronaut Terry Virts during the mission in outer space.Credit: European Space Agency

She also became somewhat of a celebrity back home thanks to her social media presence during the mission, during which she fired off spectacular pictures of the Earth as well as videos explaining simple scientific principles and discussing everyday life aboard the station – including how to use the toilet.

 Anyway, a key goal of her experiments was to determine how weightlessness affects physiology and metabolism. The results of the tests are still under scientific analysis. One key goal: to help overcome the obstacles that still stand before truly protracted space travel.

We can't survive out there

Yet meanwhile, the global race for space appears to have stalled. The thrill of a human stepping onto an alien world on July 20, 1969 fired imaginations and inspired visions of colonies on other planets. The last moon landing was in December 1972. Weren't we supposed to be building colonies on Mars and orbiting Jupiter by now?

No. "Expectations were hyped up," Cristoforetti says simply. It is also true that less is being spent on space exploration now than, for instance, was put into the initial Apollo project in the midst of the Cold War. But politics and budgets aside, there are technical obstacles to the kind of space exploration glorified by Star Trek et al. 

Using the toilet on the International Space StationCredit: YouTube

That said, Cristoforetti rejects the hypothesis of anything stalling in space: we have made enormous progress and created robust procedures for working in outer space. We have learned to robustly conduct science in space, she says. Apollo and footsteps on alien dust are evocative but important work is being done on the ISS, she says. "People less than 16 haven't spent one single day that there weren't human beings in space. I think that's pretty amazing," Cristoforetti avers.

So are we going to Mars? Not so fast. The problem of losing bone mass in micro-gravity might be solvable including by diligent exercise. (We on the ground wouldn't think of it but astronauts have to be attached by lanyards to the treadmill.)

Samantha Cristoforetti in the Cupola of the International Space Station, pointing at the SpaceX CRS-6 moduleCredit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons

The main issue is the radiation that astronauts would be exposed to once they leave Earth's protective magnetic field. That problem hasn't been solved and, Cristoforetti explains, is probably the ultimate deal-breaker for the kind of long-distance space travel that reaching Mars, let alone any farther destination, would require. Existing technology can't protect the fragile humans' DNA inside the spaceship. The solution, if one is ever found, will probably be a combination of more technologically advanced shielding and pharmacology, Cristoforetti speculates. But for now, man cannot survive long trips in space, at least not intact.

She managed to stay, as said, 200 days, mainly because a one-month delay after the failure of two Russian rockets, leading her to break the European astronaut and female astronaut endurance records. It bears saying that using existing technology, reaching Mars would take about nine months, at least, just to get there, according to NASA.

Why should we, though? With the planet falling apart as climate change hits, why spend the money? "There are many answers," Cristoforetti says, adding that Europe for one doesn't spend much – "the space program costs one average movie ticket per European citizen per year – that's all Europe spends on space. Don't lose your sleep about the money." Of course, that doesn't include spending by anybody else, but okay. And the truth is that the answer seems to be, because it's there. (Here is a link to NASA information on its spending.)

"As human beings we need big journeys, big adventures to be part of," Cristoforetti says. Yes, there are unfulfilled, desperate needs on the planet, including access to safe water and food; but the soul needs nourishment too. "I think you have something in you that wants something more, wants to be part of a big adventure. To go where no one has gone before."

The late Israeli astronaut Ilan RamonCredit: Reuters