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Earth from space, as seen by an Italian astronaut

By Gabriel Frangoulis

Over 40 years since Apollo 11 first put man on to the moon, the allure of the great beyond remains, not only for the idea of conquering space but also for the boost that space projects have provided to science and technology and which have been transferred to our contemporary world.

Back on Earth after more than five months on the International Space Station (ISS), Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli last month inaugurated an exhibition of photographs of our planet that he took from space and which are currently on display at Athens’s Eugenides Foundation.

Nespoli was the first flight engineer in a five-member mission known as MagISStra, whose task was to carry out maintenance on the ISS while also delivering European, Japanese and Russian spacecraft equipment and supplies.

During the mission Nespoli kept up with his fans via Twitter, posting new photographs every day, which you can see on the Flickr page of MagISStra.

Nespoli spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the experience.


How does it feel, seeing Earth from up there?

I am convinced that space tourism will be a success in the future because there are two things that are truly unique and which can only be found in space.

The first is the absence of gravity, which is really astonishing, unique and beautiful, and that you can not simulate on Earth. People think that there are rooms where you enter and with a switch it is possible to simulate the absence of gravity. They do not exist.

The second reason is the ability to see the world with different eyes.

It is different because you travel at a speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour, 7.7 kilometers per second, and you orbit so fast that in an hour-and-a-half you have done a full orbit of the Earth.

Every half-hour or so there is a sunrise or a sunset -- 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets per day -- now you are over Italy and 10 minutes later you are in Florida. Now it is winter and 10 minutes later it is summer. Now you are over an ocean, then over the desert. You are above the mountains, then above the Amazon Rainforest; you are in Sydney and then you are in Tokyo. It’s always like that!

Seeing the Earth from up there is awesome and gives you a different level of consciousness.

It gives you the feeling that the Earth is like a ship sailing through space; that we are the sailors and that all our actions have consequences for our planet.

I would like to see many people have this opportunity.

For example, I would like to send into orbit some philosophers, theologians, journalists and politicians in order to make them see the Earth differently. Perhaps I would leave a few politicians up there!

In my opinion there is a different point of view of this planet up there, in the sense that you can feel the sensitivity of the Earth and how we must be careful about what we are doing.

If you look carefully from up there, you realize how we are adapting this planet to our own needs with new roads, rivers, canals, bridges and cities and that on the one hand it’s fine, but on the other we should remember to respect the natural balance.


You spent more than five months in space. How did you feel when you got back?

The first thing I thought when we landed is that gravity sucks! After 159 days in microgravity you get used to floating in the air. At the beginning it is a shock, but then floating in the air is really nice.

Finding yourself pressed to the ground, bound by the force of gravity is pretty heavy and a bit oppressive, but clearly I was very happy that the mission had gone well.

I was glad to be finally back on Earth, to be able to do things normally, to smell the world, feel the sun on my face, talk to more people than the four or five that were on the station. I had a sense of having achieved a personal and professional goal and of being back a bit more human than alien.


What was the MagISStra mission about?

MagISStra was a fascinating mission that pursued three main goals of bringing back to Earth the benefits of space science, technology and education.

Many people often ask why we go into space and usually my answer is very banal because up there we can find conditions that you cannot find on land and which enable us to conduct scientific experiments, especially in the field of medicine.

For example, in the absence of gravity it is possible to measure and test all the micro forces, which exist on earth but we do not see, just because the force of gravity is so strong that it does not allow us to observe these little things.
Scientific research is one of the main reasons why we go into orbit.

However, some of these achievements can be measured and other less so. The process by which scientists are selected to conduct the experiments, the process by which we collect data in orbit, the process by which these data go back, then are reviewed and compared with other data, is a very complex system that makes it difficult to measure the goals achieved. You can’t say: “We are back on Earth and we discovered this!”

Meanwhile as regards the educational work that we did during our mission, the results are more tangible.
We encountered a very strong interest, especially by young people. For example, on Twitter at the end of the mission I had 50,000 followers. The number of people who had seen the pictures from the orbit, who interacted with us, or the number of students and schools that participated in events with us, was amazingly high.

So the interaction that we brought into people’s lives every day was really felt.


Have you ever felt in danger during any of your missions?

First of all going into space is dangerous. You are defying nature, you are going to live in a place that is hostile to life, so to stay alive you need a machine and if your machine does not work or you do not know how to make it work, you have a problem.

The transition between being on the ground and going into orbit, the so-called launch, along with the return passages, are very delicate.

We are aware of the complexity and danger of these missions, but I personally have great confidence in the people who work in these systems.

I have done so much training that I think I know these things and I never had a feeling of fear also because I think this happens when you are in a situation that you are not familiar with.

Instead of feeling fear I was anxious because I knew that these experiments are expensive and complicated, handed to you by a team of thousands of people who worked for years and you have to do this experiment and you could ruin it or be unable to do it.


How important is it to invest in space research? How does Greece contribute?

In my opinion, it’s very important that all industrialized nations do research and invest in research in order to discover what they do not know so as to stay alive.

Greece is a new partner of the European Space Agency (ESA) and in one sense it is part of the space projects.
I think the Greek participation is very important because through ESA, you can offer new challenges for young people and new opportunities for Greek industry and even a boost to working together with Europe and the rest of the world.

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“A Journey in Space: Images of the European Space Program” is open from 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. through April 17, except on public holidays and Sundays, at the Eugenides Foundation (387 Syngrou, Palaio Faliro, tel 210.946.9600).

ekathimerini.com , Monday April 2, 2012 (19:50)  
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