Category Archives: Luca blog

Letter to my daughters

Family portrait in Moscow. Credit: NASA

Family portrait in Moscow. Credit: NASA

When I was asked by a prestigious Italian news magazine to write a letter to my daughters – to be published in the first edition of the year – writing about the future, I was not exactly sure of what the content could be. Without worrying too much I accepted, as I consider it a privilege the fact that they had asked me. An astronaut is not an author, but it is important to get out of your comfort zone, and to confront the unknown.

Post-flight training session. Credit: ESA/NASA

Post-flight training session. Credit: ESA/NASA

So, between experiments (for which I was the guinea pig) and training sessions – while I was running, swimming and gritting my teeth through strength tests – I thought about my little daughters: how to express something valuable and at the same time comprehensible, now, and in ten or fifteen years, that would not lose value, but rather intensify it with experience?

After two weeks – during which time I was often contacted to know if I was still interested in the collaboration – I understood I was trying too hard to use my brain, and that I was looking for something, as often happens, in the wrong place. Two days before the deadline I sat down at the desk in my hotel bedroom, in a foreign country, on a cold-yet-clear autumn night. I stopped thinking, and I began to write.

To Sara and Maia

Our planet. Credit: ESA/NASA

Beautiful world. Credit: ESA/NASA

The world is incredibly beautiful. Maybe I had forgotten, but I saw it from afar, and now I have proof. But even from up close it can be wonderful, if looked upon with the right set of eyes: eyes like yours, that observe with the gift of curiosity, illuminated by the light of wonder. Eyes that still believe in enchantment, without shame – eyes that understand with no need of explanations.

This is the only world we have, and it contains something extremely precious: our future. Every future is as big as the entire world. The future, just like the world, does not belong to you, yet it is in your hands. It is unique, but it is never the same. It may seem infinite, but it is only infinitely fragile.

Like a tree of life. Credit: ESA/NASA

Like a tree of life, Burkina Faso. Credit: ESA/NASA

I wish I could show you the way to your future, but that is not the role of a father. What I really want to give you instead is the map containing all the roads, so that you can choose your own way.

You are still too young to understand this, but you children are so much richer than us, the grown-ups. You have at your disposal such a capital that the richest of men envy you: time. Recently you started going to school, and without knowing it, you have started investing this treasure of yours, letting it grow by transforming it into knowledge, into experience, into memories. This is the only luggage you may take along with you, while you travel following that map that I would like to give you.

Forks in a river over Giorgia. Credit: ESA/NASA

Forks in a river over Giorgia. Credit: ESA/NASA

Soon enough you will encounter the first problems, the first challenges: at every junction on that map you will have to depend on what you took with you to choose a road to go down. Initially, there will be no difference: many roads will take you to the same destination and the only thing that changes will be the view, or maybe the distance.

But, sooner or later, the road you choose will diverge from the previous one, irreversibly, and there won't be many chances to go back. This I have learned: you will have enough time to choose your road. Sometimes, you will discover that the road did not exist until you made the first step. It does not matter. What really matters, the only thing, is that you love to walk. Choose what you love, love what you choose.

And if the going gets rough, when obstacles seem insurmountable, when there is no light to clear the way, remember that at times, you need to be lost in order to find yourself.

Expedition 37 crew members pose for a photo in Kibo. Credits: NASA

With friends on Space Station. Credit: NASA

Embrace difficulties: they will enrich your road. Look for challenges: they will strengthen your step.

Finally: you will have fellow wayfarers who will at times follow your road, at others stray away, to come back or to forever disappear. You will love their company, you will miss them when they are gone. And if they take with them part of what you carry along, look really well: you will find that nothing is amiss, and that you now have even more.

Symmetry

Karen, Fyodor and LUca are gearing up for their return to earth. Credits NASA

Karen, Fyodor and LUca are gearing up for their return to earth.
Credits NASA

Closing the hatch of the Soyuz is like closing the the cover of a just-finished book. The sense of abandonment is surprising, until I realise that a last page is nothing more than an invitation to open the first page of a next book.

I console myself with this thought as I take off my ‘civilian’ clothes, a simple T-shirt and trousers, and put on my clothes for the journey back home.

Two special garments called Kentavr were developed in Russia for the return journey: a pair of knee-high socks and elastic shorts that wrap around the calves, buttocks and thighs to minimise the flow of blood towards the lower part of the body avoiding decreased blood flow to the head. I wear them directly on the skin. I set up a belt with electrodes around my chest that record my heartbeat, the same I had when I arrived at the International Space Station. On top of this, I wear the Camelia undergarment , a cotton bodysuit .

I slowly start to put on my Sokol space suit, the procedure is not as complex as the EMU suit used in spacewalks but just as important. Karen helps me stabilise the torso while I slip into the inner pressure-layer, then I hook up the headphone cables and the biomedical band. I take my time to seal myself in the suit, pulling every strap tight and checking each coupling carefully. Meanwhile, Fyodor has completed the initial checks of the spacecraft and the computer is switched on and ready to react to our inputs.

Once again I am the first to get to my seat, microgravity makes the task easier and I remember how hard it was to go through the same movements on ground, just six months ago .

It takes Karen just a few minutes to be ready in her right-hand seat and then it is Fyodor’s turn: when he switches the Soyuz living-module lights off it will be the last time. Following the procedures in our textbooks , Fyodor seals the inner hatch and then fastens his seatbelt. How many times have I reenacted this scene during simulation? The sense of déjà vu is lessened by the Olympic torch that is firmly fastened to the structure of the reentry capsule between myself and the commander.

The undocking sequence will start in a few hours but we are already busy with leak checks. They are identical to the redocking checks performed just a week ago and Fyodor, Karen and I sail through the procedure. Everything works perfectly, no surprises – we would not be happy if there were.

Undocking

The Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft departs from the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

The Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft departs from the International Space Station.
Credits: NASA

Our ground controller follows every move through telemetry and confirms our comments and repeats the timing of commands to activate the undocking sequence. It is my privilege, as flight engineer, to send the commands while Fyodor visually inspects the undocking. I start the countdown in Russian at the scheduled time and give the go-ahead for start sequence. The hum of electric motors as the Soyuz hooks are opened cannot be heard through the headphones but within a few minutes we perceive a slight movement of the aircraft. We are undocked . The Soyuz turns on its secondary engines to ensure separation. For about two orbits we will drift freely away from the station. I cannot describe the feeling I had during detachment, I am glad that I cannot see the Space Station as its contours fade until they disappear. Maybe I will never be truly ready to leave the International Space Station. Maybe I will have never really left it.

The two orbits pass with regular parameter checks and review of reentry procedures. This is Fyodor’s third Soyuz flight and he takes advantage of this quieter moment to remind us once again how to prepare for the most challenging phases.

I look out of my porthole to check spacecraft position but the clouds, mixed with the snow of the glaciers amongst the peaks that fly past beneath me seize my mind. I am overcome with the same intensity when, six months ago, my eyes gazed upon the same contrast of blue and white.

Then it is time: like hundreds of times in simulations I settle into my seat until I feel the profile along my back, tightening the seatbelts with all my strength.

Separation sequence

Separation sequence graph. Credits: NASA

Separation sequence graph. Credits: NASA

I use my gloved fingers to raise the protective cover over the buttons I will press in case of emergency – I do not want any obstructions in case I am forced to use them. While Fyodor configures his screen to send images to the Control Center, I start another countdown in Russian. The Soyuz responds perfectly , every indicator is right on schedule: a vibration verifies that the main thruster has been activated and is confirmed by a light on my screen. For a little over four minutes, the commander reads the parameters of deceleration while I compare them with previously calculated values. The difference is minimal. We all wait for the computer to calculate a speed of 128 m/s and automatic engine shutdown. Another countdown: "5 , 4, 3 , 2, 1... 1 , 2, 3..." my fingers reach for the manual override button but procedure instructs me to wait before pressing it. After three, long seconds , the engine is switched off by the computer and I relax: the separation sequence will be as planned and performed automatically. It is only a matter of minutes and the instruments on our screens show that all is going well. The three-second delay will be easily corrected during atmospheric reentry .

As scheduled, like a perfectly calibrated watch, the computer begins the separation sequence, accompanied by various alarms, lights and sounds that, after hundreds of simulations, do not surprise me but are a welcome confirmation that everything is proceeding normally. The screen formations change automatically but I have to do some checks before returning to the page about landing of the Soyuz booklet. My hands move automatically while I check that the main parachute has been selected, then I open the valves that allow ventilation after landing and close the valve that until recently let oxygen from the service module into our suits. The service module has left us to turn into a wreck as it disintegrates in the plasma that will soon surround us.

Reentry

Soyuz TMA-09M seen from BA15. Notice aircraft cockpit reflection.

Soyuz TMA-09M seen from BA15. Notice aircraft cockpit reflection.
Credit: Simon Wijker

My last look outside from space shows that we are rotating slowly as expected. Everything out there is black. A blackness I know well. I glance at the instruments: I want to be sure to catch the entry into the atmosphere that the spacecraft calculates based on our deceleration. At the exact moment that the computer indicates reentry I turn my head in the helmet of my Sokol spacesuit to look outside: a white, dense light flashes at me through the window as if the Soyuz were sinking into a thick liquid. I begin to feel the pull of gravity. I read the data on my screen, confirming the readings read aloud by Fyodor. At just 0.5 g I feel crushed by a giant hand that makes me sink into my seat. With my right arm I change the computer screen to a different formation to read the parameters of the onboard systems and it feels as if I was lifting someone else’s arm. When I read 2 g it is difficult to breathe, my chest is crushed by the weight of my suit and my body but that is just the beginning. I make an effort to look outside again and it is worth it: the spectacle of colour waiting for me outside the porthole hypnotises me – red and orange dominate the field of view and at our supersonic speed I see the remains of our heat shield burning as it passes by like a meteorite along the direction of flight , disintegrating at 1600 degrees of white heat.

"Karen, look, look outside ...", that is all I manage say.

Credits: ESA-D. Detain

Rescue helicopters.
Credits: ESA-D. Detain

The numbers continue to flow relentlessly , 2.5 g , 3 g, 4 g, 4.5 g. Now I feel the weight of the skin on my throat crushing my larynx and when I read the peak measurement at 4.91 g, I find it hard to speak the parameters. The g forces last just a few, but long, moments. When deceleration decreases it is greeted by relief from all of us . Now we are falling through Earth's atmosphere at about 400 m/s and at regular intervals Fyodor tries radio contact, hoping to catch the signal of rescue helicopters.

Landing

Soyuz TMA-09M is seen moments before it lands southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan with the crew of Expedition 37. Credits: NASA/C.Cioffi

Soyuz TMA-09M is seen moments before it lands southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan with the crew of Expedition 37. Credits: NASA/C.Cioffi

When the parachute opens it feels like being on a roller coaster. The spaceship is tossed from side to side while rotating on its axis at 13° per second but I feel great and I laugh from pure joy. The last events occur rapidly: on the computer screen I observe the cabin depressurisation and I know that soon the remains of the heat shield that protected us from the infernal heat of the plasma will be released. With a jerk we get rid of it, then the three, pneumatically cushioned seats are released and move towards the cockpit in preparation for the impact of landing.

The rescue helicopters communicate our altitude- 2000 meters, 1500 ... with surprising speed it is time to tighten our seat belts for the last time. "Brace for impact!". I fill my lungs with air, close my mouth, stiffen all the muscles in my neck trying to push into my seat. The impact, which coincides with the firing of the retro-thrusters, empties my lungs and reverberates through my body while our seats collapse, reducing the deceleration from about 20 g to 5 g. What remains of our Soyuz bounces a couple of times before stopping on its side. Inside, we look around, three thumbs raised in front of us to confirm that we are fine. I am laughing like a child.

I feel a strong sense of almost palindromic symmetry of what I experienced. A six-hour flight brought me to the Station in May. Six hours ago I was still on board. Now I am back. Nothing has changed – nothing will ever be the same.

NASA Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg, left, Expedition 37 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, center holding the Olympic torch, and ESA Flight Engineer Luca Parmitano sit in chairs outside the Soyuz capsule just minutes after they landed Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

NASA Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg, left, Expedition 37 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, center holding the Olympic torch, and ESA Flight Engineer Luca Parmitano sit in chairs outside the Soyuz capsule just minutes after they landed
Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Interview with Luca just after landing

Interview with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, on Monday 11 November, shortly after landing in the Kazakhstan steppe.

Luca, together with Russian commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, landed at 02:49 GMT (03:49 CET), in the same Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft that flew them to the International Space Station on 29 May.

Luca spent five months on the International Space Station for his Volare mission under a bilateral agreement with the Italian space agency and NASA. He conducted more than 30 scientific experiments, performed two extravehicular activities (EVAs) and operational tasks as well as maintaining the orbital outpost. More on the Volare mission at: www.esa.int/volare

Wind, sand and stars – (with apologies once again to De Saint-Exupery)

Mesospheric Noctilucent Clouds capture the first rays of a new day’s sun

Mesospheric Noctilucent Clouds capture the first rays of a new day’s sun

That is my planet.

I gaze lovingly at the surface with its boundless and beautiful colours. How many times have I explored its borders as the dawn immortalises its curves, glowing in an indescribable light-blue that is perfectly outlined by the light of iridescent mesospheric clouds: the colour of infinite patience.

Shrouded in silence I look out: I feel our planet’s heart beat as I watch the vital water run along infinite veins across the land, nourished and protected by the clouds that cover Earth’s surface like the cloak of a vestal virgin. Its breathing is calm and eternal like the tides but large as ocean waves. It holds the power of winds that sweep sand from a hundred deserts to the tops of a thousand mountains in one breath.

In a few hours, all this will be a memory. My spaceship is quiet and dark in waiting, but soon it will turn into a dramatic theatre when we return to Earth. Everything that has a beginning must come to an end: this fragility makes each experience unique and even more valuable.

I try to fill my eyes, my mind and my heart with the colours, nuances and sensations so that my memories will be witness to the experience. Underneath me on Earth, lands merge: country boundaries are non-existent when you look down from up here in the Cupola. I observe the lands of men.

I always feel the irresistible attraction of the sky and stars when I look up on Earth. I encourage my mind to lose itself in the infinite and the unknown. It is in our nature, our Ulysses gene. Nonetheless, Ulysses returns to Ithaca after many travels: his island always in his dreams. If I had been born in the interstellar darkness, if I had spent my entire life traveling far from our world, I would look back at our bright-blue waters and diverse continents with the same admiration. Every sunrise and every sunset would instil the same sense of awe. I would dream of sinking my feet in the warm sands, to feel the cold embrace of snow and the caress of the salty sea-breeze that blows towards land. I would wonder how it feels to bathe in its waters, to bask in the warmth of the Sun.

But I am lucky: I was born there.

That is my planet. That is my home.

Credits: ESA/NASA

Credits: ESA/NASA

Guide to the International Space Station for the occasional visitor – part 2

Pressurised Mating Adaptor (PMA1)

Unity with PMA1 in the background.  Credits: NASA

Unity with PMA1 in the background.
Credits: NASA

From the FGB, moving toward the bow, we pass through a corridor that looks rather strange. The corridor is an asymmetrical truncated cone. Starting from the round hatch, it transforms into a square that is Node-1. This transitional area is called PMA1, and in addition to connecting the two main segments, it is also a convenient place to store things: its walls are covered with the typical white bags we call CTBs that contain equipment on the Station. When you float through the PMA1 it feels as though you are going down because of its asymmetrical shape .

Node-1 (Unity)

Mealtime in Unity Credits: NASA

Mealtime in Unity
Credits: NASA

This is the oldest module of the American segment and you can tell by the state of the of the walls that have suffered from dozens of inexperienced astronauts eating meals here. Node-1 is still the main meeting point for the crew, and the only passage from one segment to another . The table here is the missing half of the Russian table mentioned in my previous post. The table was disassembled several expeditions ago and reassembled here with wit and some space do-it-yourself. The four walls around the table are used as stowage. The deck , in particular, contains the Station’s toolbox , so it is normal to see an astronaut selecting tools for a job or storing them here when finished. The walls are made of a white, plastic material except for the structures on the four sides of the hatches which are pink to distinguish them from the blue-coloured Destiny Lab and the grey Node-2. Node-1’s second bay has four access hatches to the modules but only three are related to other areas. The fourth, at the very top, is used for storage and currently it holds categorised food containers.

Permanent Multipurpose Module (Leonardo)

The interior of Leonardo. Credits: NASA

The interior of Leonardo.
Credits: NASA

Crossing the Unity hatch at the nadir you access the Permanent Multipurpose Module, or PMM. Also called Leonardo, the name of this module has an interesting history. Built by the Italian Space Agency, the module began life in space as one of three logistic modules carried by the Space Shuttle to resupply the Station. The Italian Space Agency then converted MPLM to a permanent storage module. Here the feeling of going down is very strong, and we all play at ‘falling’ into the PMM and then bouncing back by pushing off from the bottom. The walls of Leonardo are stowed with CTBs, spare parts and food. One of the racks is allocated to the astronauts, we use it as a personal locker: our clothes, personal hygiene material and other belongings are here.

Airlock (Quest)

Quest airlock.  Credits: NASA

Quest airlock.
Credits: NASA

If you move to the right from Node-1 , looking in the flight direction, you enter the Airlock. I have described this module many times, because during my first spacewalk I spent lots of time preparing the spacesuits which are installed in the two walls of the Equipment Lock. The two suits are waiting patiently for the next astronaut to bring them to life. A smaller cylinder - the Crew Lock - is used as storage for spacewalk material when not used for a spacewalk itself. Our reserve suits, the SAFER and tethers are attached to its walls . The rest of the material is behind the four walls of the Equipment Lock: batteries for the suit , CO2 filters, drinking-water containers and maintenance tools. The Airlock will always have a special aura for me: it is particularly quiet and cosy because it is smaller than the other modules and I always love working here .

Node-3 (Tranquility)

Inside Tranquility Credits: NASA

Inside Tranquility
Credits: NASA

Directly in front of the Airlock is Node-3 . Without doubt this module has the highest number of astronauts pass by each day, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps this module is the less noble one but certainly one of the most useful and very essential as it holds the toilet. It is identical to the Russian toilet, the liquid recycling system is fully integrated and astronauts intervention is minimal. The cabin dimensions are more comfortable than the toilet at the other end of the Station , and Fyodor likes to joke that our toilet is the "first class" toilet.

The second reason why this module is particularly busy is that two of our sports equipment are installed here. The first one – T2, or better known as our treadmill – is on the right wall as you enter from Node-1. We run on the wall that looks towards our flight direction meaning that our body is parallel to Earth. I wrote about T2 in a previous blog. The second sports equipment is called the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device – ARED – and it works on the principle of vacuum pumps : two sealed and calibrated pistons allow us to exercise weight lifting. The detail I want to point out here is that the three elements of Node-3 described so far lie on three different levels: if an astronaut in Node-1 looks inside Tranquility, they could see an astronaut running parallel to the deck, another using the toilet in normal orientation (i.e. with their head towards the zenith) and another astronaut training on ARED head down. Because each of us trains on ARED at least 90 minutes a day, and at least two people, if not three , train daily on T2, it is very likely that someone, at any given time is training .

Cupola

Cupola and the robotics workstation. Credits: NASA

Cupola and the robotics workstation.
Credits: NASA

The third reason why there is always someone in Node-3 is because of Cupola which is installed on the nadir port. As you cross Node-3 while doing a 180-degree somersault you will enter Cupola. Often our feet remain hooked to the hatch so Earth flows towards us, our view looking in the direction of flight, with North on the right and South on the left. This window on the world has fascinated and charmed all astronauts and cosmonauts who have had the privilege of looking at our planet from up here. Its seven windows allow a view of 360 degrees of the horizon and offers a spectacle of unparalleled beauty that nourishes the soul and fills the eyes without ever being indulging.

I could go on trying in vain to find the right words, but this is not the right moment. So we move back, through Node-3 and through Node-1 to continue past the hatch in the flight direction.

Destiny Laboratory (Lab)

Robonaut working in the Destiny Lab Credits: NASA

Robonaut working in the Destiny lab.
Credits: NASA

Entering the American laboratory the size of the module is surprising, it is at least twice as large as the modules described so far. The two cone-shaped areas to the front and rear are blue, but the rest of the walls are white (or rather, what we can see of them!). The Lab is the core of the US segment , not only because it contains most of the systems that support life on the Station but also for the scientific racks distributed along the surfaces: we carry out many experiments here. As you enter, on the right, you will find many lenses and cameras that are always available for us to take pictures of our activities. To the left is a workplace used for the Daily Planning Conferences where the logbook can be found (in fact it is a completely unofficial note book), along with pens, markers and pencils, all attached with Velcro. Immediately after that, on both sides, are control joysticks for Canadarm2. The Lab is the support location for the robotic operations when the one in Cupola is not used. Only the robotic work station to the left is operational, the one to the right is connected to the training system called ROBOT, a Canadarm2 simulator.

Further on, we will see the drinking water dispenser overhead, then, to the left, CEVIS, our space exercise bike . It takes little time to adapt to cycling in orbit but it is always strange to think that CEVIS has no saddle or handlebar: they are useless at 0g. The other four bays on the right-hand side are occupied by science racks including the easily recognisable Microgravity Science Glovebox with its large glass window now running the InSpace3 experiment.

Node-2 (Harmony)

Crew quarters in Harmony. Credits NASA

Crew quarters in Harmony. Credits NASA

Identical in shape to Node-3 (they are both built in Italy) , Node-2 contains four sleeping berths where astronauts (and a cosmonaut!) rest. To ensure a bit of space, the berths are placed away from the walls. Slightly smaller than a phone booth (for those old enough to remember them) these ‘phone boxes’ are a luxury in orbit because they allow a little privacy. Inside each, bound to the interior wall, we have our light-green sleeping bags and two computers (one for the onboard network and one to connect to the internet). On the walls, each astronaut arranges photos of their family and personal belongings the best they can - all this helps to create a welcoming and comfortable environment.

The second bay is a working area, and the walls are fitted with two blue, metal benches for tools, equipment and experiments. This is where Karen and Mike are working on the CFE experiment. The docking port at the nadir is now empty but has hosted HTV-4 and Cygnus -D over the course of my mission. This is also where Dragon docks. The upper door is empty, while the front is used for stowage. Behind that door is PMA2 , the Space Shuttle docking port: every time I think about PMA2 I see myself installing the insulating cover on the outside during my first spacewalk... but that is another story .

Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo)

Expedition 37 crew members pose for a photo in Kibo. Credits: NASA

Expedition 37 crew members pose for a photo in Kibo.
Credits: NASA

A small, Japanese-style curtain welcomes us when we turn to the left to enter Kibo . If the Destiny Lab is large, Kibo is huge , as the inscription at the entrance confirms: "Welcome to Kibo - please enjoy and relax in this brand new , spacious and the most quietest room in the ISS " (sic). Always immaculate , spacious and well lit, Kibo is a favourite place for filming videos. Here, too, the walls offer stowage and experiment areas but four features make Kibo even more extraordinary : first, the last bay on the left has a robotic station (with integrated joystick and screens) to control the Japanese robotic arm on the Exposed Facility outside (the so-called veranda). Second is an integrated sealed chamber to move experiments to outside the Station and vice-versa . The third feature are the two windows just above the sealed chamber that look to the right of the Station. To discover the fourth feature we have to cross the entire module to the wall at the very end. Here the module widens and you will find another pressurised module when you look up.

Experiment Logistics Module- Pressurized Section (JLP)

A view of JLP from the outside. Credits: NASA

A view of JLP from the outside.
Credits: NASA

The JLP is a (relatively) small pressurised logistics module on top of Kibo. It is much loved by astronauts to film scenes where we fly upward to demonstrate microgravity. The words "Welcome to the highest place of Japan over Mt Fuji" are written at the entrance which always puts a smile on our faces. The module is the same size as an HTV and is full of materials stowed like in an HTV spacecraft.

Columbus Laboratory

Fisheye view of Columbus Laboratory. Credits: NASA

Fisheye view of Columbus Laboratory.
Credits: NASA

Crossing Kibo in the opposite direction to return to Node-2 and moving across, we find ourselves in the Columbus laboratory , the European contribution to the International Space Station. When you get inside, you immediately realise the scientific nature of this module: all the bays to the right are occupied by experiment racks as well as the first bay above us and three to our left. The deck is dedicated to onboard systems and is covered by metal panels. Besides containing systems including two monitors, the cone in front of us is used for stowage. In addition to being used for European experiments, Columbus is also the most used module for physiology studies and checks are performed on weight changes, blood samples are taken and all types of ultrasounds are performed (spinal , cardiac and optical) .

Since our journey on the Station began we have crossed many tens of metres and visited a volume of about 840 cubic meters - equivalent to that of a large transport aircraft. This extraordinary ship , built and operated by five space agencies (the best example of international cooperation in the world) travels at an altitude of 400km and 28 000km per hour. A student asked me "What is the thing that most impressed you the Space Station?”. Now you can understand my answer. And you, what would you have answered?

Guide to the International Space Station for the occasional visitor

Last week I spoke to students from three universities in Italy, Germany and Israel. I liked their questions a lot because they allowed me to be playful in my answers, I tried to get them to leave with more questions that their young minds can investigate further.

[youtube VsbpgzofaWw]

One deceptively simple question came from a girl who asked me: "What impresses you most about the Space Station?". She was not referring to my mission, nor to my view of Earth that over the past 150 or so days has reshaped my mind’s geography but she asked about the Station itself. I had never asked myself this question because an orbiting space station is such an extraordinary concept that I find the idea alone impressive. But this was not the right time for me to beat about the bush and, in a few short moments that felt like a long time, I pictured the Space Station and asked myself the same question. What sprang to mind were the moments after opening the hatch of the Soyuz TMA-09M as I entered human’s frontier in the cosmos for the first time. Among the thousands of thoughts that crowded my mind nearly six months ago, one thought in particular stood out and I replied: "Its dimensions ...". Today I would like to welcome you on board the station, and take you through its modules, starting from its tail end...

Automated Transfer Vehicle 4 (ATV-4)

View of ATV 4 Credits: ESA/NASA

View of ATV 4
Credits: ESA/NASA

Quiet and dark, Albert Einstein is a awaiting to depart. To light the spacecraft, you send a command through a computer that controls the on-board systems - in this case with the Russian ones. The four fluorescent lamps, identical to those on the American, European and Japanese segments, give out a very dim light when first turned on before they start gaining power and emit enough light to move freely. We are inside a closed cylinder with a curved surface. Outside the pressurised volume in which we find ourselves lie the spacecraft’s systems along with the pressurised liquids and gas. Beyond those you will find ATV Albert Einstein’s engines. On either side are two valve systems that let water, air and oxygen into the Station. Two racks bays on each wall surround us, above (overhead), under (deck), left (port) and right (starboard), eight in total. The racks are container shelves on which we have placed an enormous amount of waste, practically equal, in volume and weight, to the supplies ATV-4 brought us four months ago. In front of us a cone-shape narrows into the docking system, which  ingeniously doubles as the access hatch to the Russian segment. When we leave the module, we close the hatch for the last time: tomorrow ATV-4 will undock from the Station but we will see Albert one more time from above when it disintegrates as it re-enters the atmosphere.

Service Module

Pavel Vinogradov in Zvezda

Pavel Vinogradov in Zvezda. Credit: NASA

Once through the narrow ATV hatch we find ourselves in a small compartment shaped like a sphere and filled with containers. We use this area as a closet, but is mainly a corridor to access the Zvezda’s operating compartment (Zvezda means star in Russian). This is the central module of the Russian segment where Russian cosmonauts spend most part of their days in orbit.

Immediately to our left is a small compartment: the bathroom. A suction fan that creates an air flow to direct waste away. Solid waste goes to an airtight container, liquid waste goes through a separate tube similar to a vacuum cleaner for recycling separately. The space is really cramped, but the system works well and does not generate unpleasant odours, the space is simple but functional. Moving towards the bow of the Space Station, still inside the Service Module, we find two crew quarters left and right where Fyodor and Sergey sleep. The size of the crew quarters are no bigger than a phone booth. They are similar to those in Node2 where the rest of the crew sleeps, but they have a feature that makes them particularly luxurious: a window to the outside!

The lining of the walls, an opaque cream colour carpet, allows you to fix  anything  directly onto them thanks to the ubiquitous Velcro. There are only very few panels on the station that are not covered by Velcro.

Sunday dinner with the whole crew Credit: ESA

Sunday dinner with the whole crew
Credit: ESA

Continuing our journey forward a folding table can be seen where generations of space explorers have dined together. The table includes an element to warm up meals. On the right there is the water dispenser that delivers water hot and at room temperature. On the left there is another water dispenser for long-duration stays . Next to the table, towards the Station’s bow, you will find the system to regenerate our atmosphere. This large apparatus is constantly in motion with the sound of the a clock pendulum in motion. Moving on  the space narrows on both sides and we find our cameras and lenses, sorted by focal length from wide-angle to 600mm zoom. The deck in this area contains a number of windows  with excellent optical properties. To watch the planet go past underneath us is an endless source of entertainment. Two computers with access to the onboard analogue system are located on the sides of the central panel. There are three computers: one to access the Russian systems, one for the American systems  and  one for the onboard network. The ATV control panel,  through which I followed the spacecraft’s docking and I will monitor its undocking, is installed on the right side. Usually TORU, the manual command system for Progress,  is here as well.

We go through another hatch to get into another round compartment , larger and more comfortable than the previous one. This compartment is different from the first one because it is  a node with three docking points to which three modules are docked.

Mini Research Module 2

MRM2. Credit: NASA

MRM2. Credit: NASA

As we float towards the zenith, we enter the Mini Research Module 2. With its elongated bell shape, this module is used as a docking port for logistics modules and for the of Soyuz A line (used for Expeditions with uneven numbers for example now the Expedition 37/38 Soyuz is here). The walls are covered with the same cream-colour carpet but they are newer here and the colour is more vivid. This module has two hatches on the outside, one positioned towards the direction of flight, the other in the opposite direction . Each door has an integrated window. At the zenith we find the Soyuz spacecraft, dark and silent, apart from the never-ending sound of the fans. If we settle  into the Soyuz’ descent module we are at the highest point of the Station: there is no human presence above us.

Docking Compartment 1

Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin (left) and Alexander Misurkin in the Docking Compartment. Credit: NASA

Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin (left) and Alexander Misurkin in the Docking Compartment. Credit: NASA

Going in the opposite direction, towards the nadir, we enter the Docking Compartment1. This compartment, identical to the MRM2, is used as a docking port for the Russian Progress cargo vehicle and as an airlock for Russian spacewalks. The two Orlan spacesuits always stowed here and Oleg and Sergey the activation procedures for the two suits some time ago. At the lowest point we can see the Progress shuttle that docked to the Station a few months ago and since emptied. The spacecraft is gradually being filled with waste until it departs.

Logistic Module – Zarya - FGB

Archive picture of DC1. Credits: NASA

Archive picture of DC1. Credits: NASA

Zarya which means dawn in Russian is the oldest Station module, launched in 1998. Although it holds various systems used during autonomous flight, it is now used for storage. The walls are panels that can be easily opened to access the equipment in storage. Crossing towards the front of the Station, the deck is completely covered by cargo , secured by elastic cords and Velcro. The cargo covers about a third of the walls. If I stretched out straight, the material would come up to my knees. At the front, the module is completely empty: here Fyodor, Oleg and Sergey wash in the morning and after exercise, and three of the walls are covered by their personal items. The best way to quickly cross this module is to use the bars on the walls: they almost look like horizontal boxes. Sometimes coming from the Service Module I have fun crossing FGB with my feet forward , forcing my brain to think vertically:  the feeling is similar to descending into a well.

At the very front we go through another hatch and find ourselves in another rounded compartment, as large as the one on the other end  but with two docking points .

Mini Research Module 1

Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in MRM1 Credit: NASA

Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in MRM1
Credit: NASA

Descending towards the nadir we enter the Mini Research Module 1. It is bigger than Mini Research Module 2 and the Docking Compartment 1. The interior has a square cross-section, and just like the FGB the walls are covered with panels that can be opened to access the equipment stored behind them. The lowest part of the module holds the docking port for the Soyuz line B for Expeditions that start with an even number such as 36/37. My Soyuz is docked there at a 45 degree angle compared to the direction of flight. But not for long in preparation for the arrival of TMA-11M, my crew will undock from Mini Research Module 1, fly around the International Space Station to reposition the vehicle behind the Service Module, and then dock in manual mode. This manoeuvre is rarely done but I am trained for it together with Fyodor and we are pleased to be able to perform it.

END OF PART ONE

A day on the International Space Station

A day on the International Space Station

Luca's sleeping quarters Credits: ESA/NASA

Luca's sleeping quarters
Credits: ESA/NASA

The first of two alarms sounds at 5:50 GMT, like every morning, Mondays to Fridays. It shakes me from dreams that I never remember. Still sleepy I stretch my arms, which were folded through the night, and automatically I poke them through the two slots on either side of the sleeping bag  to allow the arms out. In space, every move starts a chain reaction so my sleeping bag is tied with four thin cords to the wall of the crew quarters or else it would float away. My head often gently touches the ‘ceiling’ causing my body to bounce slowly in the opposite direction until the my foot touches the floor briefly.

Now that my hands are free I remove my eye mask that keeps light away and open the zip that holds me in my sleeping bag . Inside the crew quarters everything is dark except for the dim green and blue led lights from two computers and their connection to the Space Station network. Everything is silent until I remove my ear plugs and the familiar hum of the fan that circulates air returns.

My  first automatic action is to activate the computer to read the daily crew conference that Houston sends at night. This report contains the latest information on the day’s operations, any schedule changes, questions, and answers to questions we raised the day before. It also contains fundamental information in case of emergency and I send it to the printer to have it available later.  I also print a list of people with whom I will talk today in Houston and Huntsville (USA), Munich (Germany), Tsukuba (Japan) and the ‘Tsup’ in Moscow (Russia) . Although we can always use call signs, it is more friendly to call people by their name from time to time. Many of the people I talk to on Earth are instructors , colleagues and friends .

I put on a pair of sport shorts and a cotton shirt. Opening my sleeping quarter’s door I find myself oriented sideways. Habituated from experience I pull myself out and push myself towards the Destiny Lab in a single movement.  The Destiny module is still dark even though I know that Mike has been awake for a while. I fetch the first page of the daily summary as I pass the printer and place it above the others near the computer,  that interfaces with Station systems that we would use in an emergency .

Even in Node1 the lights are still off, but Node 3 is lit up  and Mike has already started his weightlifting routine on ARED. I greet him in Italian, smiling and, as always,  he replies in Italian. This has become our routine even though he has only been here for three weeks. Mike has lived in Italy and is fluent in Italian. The toilet is right next to the ARED exercise machine, but the noise of the extractor fan, combined with the music that Mike listens to while training  is enough to hide any embarrassing noises that might occur. Leaving the ‘bathroom’ I move to another wall in Node3 where the tools of my morning routine are attached with Velcro: a razor, razor blades, deodorant, a mirror, soap and water. For obvious reasons, there are no hairbrushes or combs...

It's time to prepare breakfast: oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins and coffee, both rehydrated with water. While I eat I read the yesterday’s news in an electronic version of an Italian newspaper. I had was aware of some of the news  already by internet, but I like to read the commentary of prominent journalists.

Harnessed and ready for the BP-Reg experiment (for blood pressure) Credits: ESA/NASA

Harnessed and ready for the BP-Reg experiment (for blood pressure)
Credits: ESA/NASA

There is still an hour to go before the official start of the day, which starts with the first of two Daily Planning Conferences. I decide to start preparing the first of the daily tasks, an experiment called BP Reg. Normally I would follow Mike and exercise in the morning, but this experiment provides very accurate measurements of blood pressure, so I am not allowed to do any sports in the hours that precede. I move to the Columbus laboratory and use one of the computers to read the experiment procedure. I start collecting the materials and assemble the tools that I will use in the coming hours.

Right on schedule, Fyodor begins the Daily Planning Conference with Houston, Huntsville, Munich, Tsukuba and Moscow: “Good morning from Expedition 36. We are ready for the DPC.” In turn, the control centres update us on the day that is about to begin. In the meantime we turn on the cameras and we welcome them onboard.

I continue to prepare the experiment in the Columbus lab by initializing a computer and connecting the last components. Under Huntsville’s supervision who follow my actions from camera 2 in Columbus, I wear two bands over my thighs that inflate and reduce the blood flow to the lower part of my body. Three minutes  later the bands instantly deflate and my cardiovascular system reacts sharply to compensate for the unexpected increase in blood flow . Two pressure sensors on my left hand  record any changes  to compare the data with measurements made on ground. The experiment reproduces the pressure variation felt when standing up suddenly after being seated. The idea is to measure the effect of microgravity on a human being’s cardiovascular system.

The experiment continues. As I speak with the PayCom on channel 2, I hear Mike speaking on channel 3 who is busy with another experiment called CFE in Node2. Karen is busy with Spheres and is working in Kibo: from time to time I hear her comments on channel 2 as well.

After about two hours of the experiment comes to an end , but I will have to wait for my return to Earth to have the results. The study will continue well beyond my mission. I finish in time to return the equipment to their compartments around the Station . It is already time for lunch and I am hungry, but I cannot eat too much because the first hours of the afternoon will be dedicated to exercise and, even in orbit  the same rule applies:  better not to do conduct brisk activity after a ‘heavy’ meal.  I settle for two small tortillas, wrapped around some tuna fish, salmon and some vegetables .

I decide to start my exercise with ARED: today's exercise consists of three sets of weight-lifting exercises involving all major muscle groups.

Lifting weights on the ARED Credits: ESA/NASA

Lifting weights on the ARED
Credits: ESA/NASA

As soon as I lift the bar on my shoulders, I feel my back muscles work and my legs stiffen with tension. It has been five months I have been in space and my body has fully adapted to microgravity: my muscles feel abused even during this light warming-up as they spend around 22 hours a day in a relaxed state. ARED is located directly above Cupola: a window to the world fills my view while I struggle with my weightlifting , and I forget the aches and pains as I get lost in the details that pass ‘above’ me ( ARED is upside-down compared to the normal orientation of the Station). I see the coast of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, with snow that blends into clouds and the South Americans fjords that look like fingers. I see the intense blue of high-altitude lakes, the ancient volcanoes that spread black lava scarring their surroundings for hundreds of kilometres. Within  a few seconds we overlook the more temperate areas of Argentina, the Pampas soon turn into the plantations of Brazil, which in turn become rainforest once we reach the Amazon delta. Earth is a kaleidoscopic, never-ending carousel of lands followed by oceans, a string of contrasts and colours that always change. With this spectacle you easily forget you are tired.

On the treadmill (T2) Credits ESA/NASA

On the treadmill (T2)
Credits ESA/NASA

After an hour and a half of ARED I prepare for T2, our treadmill. I wear a harness connected by two elastic bands to the platform: I can control the amount of body weight that my muscles will endure during my training  by changing the length of these bands. The last week I have been setting the bands between 95 and 100% of my weight  because I want to readjust  to gravity for my return to Earth. I pay the price for my choice in the amount I sweat. The next 30 minutes my body will feel more dense than I am used to. It is like running with someone pressing down hard with their hands on your shoulders, constantly pushing you to the ground.

The next job of the day is in the Russian part of the International Space Station, in the Automated Transfer Vehicle. In a few days we will close the hatch for the last time and ATV Albert Einstein will leave us to disintegrate as it enters Earth’s atmosphere. The last act its voyage is to free the Station of waste that accumulated over the past five months. ATV takes both solid and liquid  waste, organic and inorganic. My job today is to organise this waste by applying a careful choreography opposite to the procedures Chris, Karen and I ran months ago when we unloaded the ship’s precious cargo.

ATV 4 when it had just arrived

ATV 4 when it had just arrived

When I enter, Albert Einstein is dimly lit and quiet, it seems as though it is half dozing ,waiting for me. I like to work alone in ATV, I enjoy the large space that I can move freely in as I rearrange the various containers. Mike joins me shortly after I start and we complete the work assigned to us for today. We have just enough time to get back as Fyodor’s familiar voice begins the second Daily Planning Conference: the evening conference. As I listen to the control centres I prepare dinner: walnuts, grilled chicken breast, vegetables and fruit. Once the conference has finished, I take advantage of a Ku-band satellite connection to make some calls. Like every night I call my parents. I have spoken to them more often in the last five months than in the three years spent training around the world before my mission. We do not have much time before the connection drops but it does not matter how long we talk for – nor is it very important what we talk about – the communication link allows me to create a serene image in my mind of my father and my mother listening to me from Earth.

Sunday dinner with the whole crew

Sunday dinner with the whole crew

Dinner is eaten quickly because tonight we are just three at the dinner table– all six of us only have dinner together a couple of times a week because it inevitably turns into a late night! We split up for the little free time we have left. It is only 20:00 but fatigue will catch up with me  and I still have e-mails to answer, social media to see to and photographs to catalogue, send and publish. Time is passing fast as I listen to some music. I divide my attention between two computers to try to do everything at once.

I dedicate the last moment of the evening to my wife before switching off the light and climb into my sleeping bag. The five -hour time difference between my wife and I separate us more than the thousands of kilometres of emptiness: she is in the middle of her daily activities while I am getting ready to sleep. Kathy, with her typically female infinite patience, puts everything aside when I phone - the problems of everyday life that every mother and every wife encounters. She grants me a few minutes of serenity, a moment that seems to stop time, a little gem of priceless calm, a break from the world, made of the stuff that dreams are made of - but this memory, at least , will stay with me upon awakening.

Luca Parmitano talks to finalists of the Volare Space Robotics Challenge

From 400 km above the surface of Earth, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano talked with high-school students during the finals of the Volare Space Robotics Challenge.

Seven teams entered remote-controlled robots that battled on a mock-up of the International Space Station. Their mission: to unload cargo from ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle as quickly as possible while avoiding objects.

Students at 'ground control' gave instructions wirelessly from the control centre next door. Multipliers added more strategy to the competition.

The two-day event was the culmination of lots of hard work from the seven teams of high-school students. The highlight for many students was visiting ESA's laboratories and of course a live call with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano straight from the International Space Station.

[youtube kAHV47Si4M4]

Every picture tells a story

Cloud forming  outside the atmosphere after disintegration

Gas cloud forming outside the atmosphere after disintegration

Some may remember the ending of a famous song from many years ago that repeated insistently that every picture tells a story. I am always impressed and excited looking at photos of nature, science and aviation and the distinct story that some images tell. I realised recently though that my interpretation of every photograph was incorrect.

I have never been a good photographer: I do not have Karen’s artistic eye that captures details of extraordinary beauty with the same quiet confidence with which she sews beautiful patterns from improvised materials. Nor do I have Fyodor’s technical knowledge whose fingers, now on their fourth space flight, handle the complex professional cameras with confidence, changing parameters almost without looking. I prefer to create memories - linked to the emotion of seeing something - rather than to attempt to improve an image through a lens. Until now I had not realised that the most interesting story is behind the camera: the most intriguing story is the lesser-known one, the cameraman's. I want to tell you the story behind two of my recent photos: the Aurora Borealis with the major cities, and the missile trail just a few minutes before a suborbital flight .

City lights and northern lights

CitylightsAurora

City lights and Auroras

Mike arrived on the station just four days ago, and he already has a personal routine that creates a feeling of comfort, it allows him to counteract the stress of life onboard that is completely different from any experience he has lived so far, despite his long career in the Air Force. It is Saturday, it is still early, but Mike has already been up for a few hours and he is almost done with his daily exercise routine. When I enter Node3 I see him smiling, and I answer with my own smile: we are in orbit, and every day is the best day we could ever imagine!

I realise that the module is rather dark and I take advantage of a break in Mike’s exercise routine to fly to Cupola. The windows are closed but it is night outside and it would not make any difference if they were open. I see from a computer monitor that we are going to cross the coast of North America and that our route follows the border between the United States and Canada. The terminator is nearby and I decide to manually open the windows: just like Pavel, I will never get used to the indescribable beauty of an orbital sunrise, and even though I have already seen hundreds of them, I decide to stay in the Cupola, observing the constellation of human lights in the dark that remind me of the presence of humankind on the planet beneath me .

Turning my body towards the north, the pale blue-green glow of the Aurora Borealis stops me in my tracks, literally, and I decided that it is worth sharing this show with a friend. I call Mike, who has finished training on ARED and is getting ready for a session on our treadmill, T2. I ask him to come to the Cupola and switch off the lights in Node3 behind him. I turn on a modified flashlight with a red lens to not disrupt our night vision and guide Mike towards the north-facing window. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness. Then I glimpse his smiling face as he greets this fantastic view, a feeling of astonishment I can identify with very well as I will never be immune to it.

There are always cameras stored in the Cupola and I take one with a 50mm lens with which I have had the most success taking pictures at night. In the semi-darkness , aided only by the dim light coming through the seven windows, I clumsily try to programme the camera to capture at least a small piece of the ethereal show. Just one picture is enough. The rest of the spectacle will remain in my memory for as long as I have one .

An unexpected surprise

A missile launch seen from space

A missile launch seen from space

One of the several tasks of an astronaut on the International Space Station is known by the acronym CEO or Crew Earth Observation. A team of researchers on ground studies the orbits of the Station and selects objectives to photograph, indicating the time of their passage, the coordinates, the type of photo you need to provide and as much information as possible to find the target. These range from easily identifiable cities to impact craters that are absolutely indistinguishable from the background – all at roughly 400km distance from us. This task is voluntary, but the challenge of finding the targets is a pleasure. Finding a particularly difficult target gives me a satisfaction that must be similar to a passionate collector purchasing a missing piece to a collection. My crew has a daily routine and Expedition 36 has far exceeded all previous photo targets snapped and sent to Earth.

I am in Cupola again and I am setting-up a camera on a window overlooking the north. The Station is operating under working hours so all the lights are on. My next Crew Earth Observation target is the Aurora Borealis. To avoid reflections from the Station’s lights I build a tent to obscure the area around the camera. I have already entered all required parameters in the camera, including the estimated time of the aurora. With a little luck I should be able to photograph the sequence even without being physically present behind the camera: at that moment I will be engaged in another activity.

Sunset is fast approaching. The gold and orange light that reflects off the solar panels attract my attention and I cannot look away until my eyes focus on an image that is foreign to nature: smoke emerges straight and clear on the horizon, accentuated by the last rays of the Sun. Nature does not like straight lines, and this inconsistency has guided my vision. I am looking at a launch of something, I do not know what and I do not know where, but it is definitely a launch. I do not know what my chances are of seeing the launch of a suborbital object when I did not know the launch details beforehand but instinctively I would say they are very slim: an extraordinary case of being in the right place at the right time!

Karen and Mike are above me in Node3, and I dare to look away for a moment to call them. They both float into the Cupola and we share the little space to observe the object as it follows its path through the upper layers of the atmosphere. Its trail is now at the mercy of the stratospheric winds which distort the shape, transforming it into a series of segments that twist, starting from the ground till it reaches the blackness of the stellar vacuum. I take one of the cameras and hope that the automatic settings will be enough to take good pictures, despite the light from the sunset starting to fade. I stop shooting only when the Sun is completely gone, but I do not stop looking. The object disintegrates before our eyes, and hundreds, probably thousands of kilometres away, we see a cloud of transparent white gas expand growing ghost-like, in all directions until it flattens when it meets the atmosphere. We wonder what we just witnessed, but even Houston ground control fails to explain.

In the evening, we discover that it was the test launch of a Russian intercontinental missile launched from Kazakhstan. All three of us are surprised by the incredible coincidence that allowed us to observe such a rare event. We are not sure what to think. For my part, I am pleased to add another valuable piece to the only true collection I have, the only one that is worth anything: my memories.

Cygnus

Waiting for Cygnus.

Waiting for Cygnus. Credits: ESA/NASA

It is dark outside, an impenetrable blackness surrounds us, so we are probably flying over an ocean as. I look around the Cupola and realise that the lights around me and the surreal blue twilight outside would probably drown-out the faint lights of the big cities anyway. Cygnus is flying below us, invisible in the darkness that surrounds it, but Karen and I will try to catch a glimpse of the spacecraft anyway: I know that dawn is not far off, and I have been waiting a week to see the supply ship.

I might have lost my eagle-eyes that I developed as a pilot, when I was trained to recognise aircraft from kilometres away, but luck did not abandon me. As the first rays of sunlight tear through the shadows, colouring the horizon gold, ochre and blue, an alien glow attracts my attention. Standing out bright and silvery in the background Cygnus catches the light and reflects it in its glorious, technological splendour.

"Tally," I say to Karen, trying to contain my excitement, and point at Cupola’s centre window. Karen nods her head, calmly confirming my sighting and informs Houston via radio. I know dozens of people there are waiting for developments with the same excitement that I feel.

Karen is responsible today for all communications relating to the small cargo ship. The spaceship is approaching fast as the data flowing over our monitors confirms. My task for the next hour will be to monitor Cygnus’ position sensors and compare it to the data I get from a portable laser that calculates the spacecraft’s distance and speed. Its speed should be as constant as possible as I aim the laser at the same spot on the spacecraft. I am rewarded by a series of green lights – the control software confirms that the data from my laser match the data from the sensors on Cygnus.

Laser tool. Credits: ESA/NASA

Laser tool. Credits: ESA/NASA

The Cupola does not offer much space, and it is now even more crowded. In addition to Karen and me, we have two computers for the procedures and for the control software. We also have the Cygnus control panel which is the same my colleague Chris Cassidy used for the HTV berthing. A number of cameras document this first mission of Cygnus as well as some snacks fill the module.

The spacecraft’s performance is impeccable, when it is 230 meters away, Karen runs a test that the spacecraft needs to complete for its maiden flight: she commands a retreat and the Cygnus slows down, stops, and backs up to a distance of 250 meters. When Houston tells us that Cygnus has resumed its approach, Karen prepares a second test, again at 230 meters. She sends the command to hold. The spacecraft obediently stops and waits for new commands.

At this distance, the spacecraft’s ‘tail’, the service module with the computers and motors, appears white. Its ‘wings’, the two solar panels shine as chrome. Its navigation lights are clearly visible, two white strobes in the centre with a red and green light on either side, the colours of the Italian flag floating in space. Cygnus’ pressurised module is built in Italy and I smile at the thought of this unintentional tribute to my country.

In a few minutes everything is ready for the approach that will bring Cygnus to thirty metres and then to ten meters. At that point the spacecraft’s interface will be only five metres away from the robotic Canadarm2. My job is to bridge that distance and then catch Cygnus. I prepared during long simulation sessions on Earth and repeated the training on the Station in dozens of virtual situations, going through the simplest of scenarios to the most extreme.

Cygnus and Canadarm2

Cygnus and Canadarm2. Credits: NASA

The spacecraft now fills our view, and we appreciate its size. It is smaller than HTV, but no less impressive: when it stabilises in the capture area I observe its slow and control movement thanks to the camera mounted on the tip of the robotic arm ­- the same one that will allow me to move the spacecraft manually until it berths with the Station.

Houston gives us the go-ahead to start capture. I follow the spacecraft by looking on the monitors as I try to find the best moment to capture Cygnus: I have to wait until it is particularly stable. In a state of automation from practice sessions during my training I start my approach. "I am going to" I say to Karen, who immediately responds "Copy". The robotic arm reacts to my commands and within seconds we are about three and a half meters away. The dialogue between Karen and myself that follows gives me a sense of déjà vu as we have practised so many times in training..

"Go for free drift."

"Copy , go for free drift. Command sent. Command received."

Karen waits to see the characteristics of free drift on her monitor, and after a few seconds she confirms: "Free drift."

"Copy , free drift. Two meters."

Canadarm2. Credits: ESA/NASA

Canadarm2. Credits: ESA/NASA

I get the robotic arm to within a meter and a half after spending some time pushing the it forward. My controls are minimal, spending more time thinking than performing: the Canadarm2 is almost 20 meters long and abrupt moves can cause unwanted oscillations.

Karen tells me the distance from my target based on marker ‘pins’ on the Canadarm: "Two pins away."

"Copy."

…"One pin."

"I am go," I say , because my target is perfectly aligned with the reference data on my monitor.

"Concur," Karen replies, confirming my thoughts and almost immediately adds: "over the pin."

Then, almost in unison, we both say "In the envelope" and I press the trigger that starts capture. We were less than a minute into the procedure. But our smiles form a memory that will last a lifetime .

In a few hours , Karen and I perform robotic manoeuvres to position Cygnus and attach it to Node2. We then move the spacecraft and integrate it with the station. There is still much work to be done and the day was long. In agreement with ground control we decide to open the hatch tomorrow. Inside the spacecraft supplies and spare parts await us but it is chock-full of the dreams of those who took part in this space adventure and full of affection from our friends and family on the ground.

Luca Parmitano

After capture. Credits: ESA/NASA

Karen and Luca after capture. Credits: ESA/NASA