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Voyaging back into space at 60: Paolo Nespoli


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Voyaging back into space at 60: Paolo Nespoli

It’s an age when many of us would be considering winding down, and cutting back on physical exertion. Not so for Paolo Nespoli, who is about to embark on his third space mission at the age of 60, which makes him Europe’s oldest astronaut. At the end of July he will voyage to the International Space Station, where he will remain for some months.

Nespoli sets off in a year that is heavy with symbolism for him: 2017 not only marks the start of his seventh decade, but also the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, which, on 4 October 1957, became the world’s first satellite to be sent into orbit.

For euronews, Claudio Rosmino has been following Nespoli as he undergoes his training for the mission.

Inspiration

Paolo Nespoli spent his formative years at a time when man’s ambitions for space travel were boundless. After Sputnik, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to voyage in space, and, between 1969 and 1972 the Apollo landings put man on the moon. “I grew up seeing rocket launchers going to the moon”, explains Nespoli, “and watching cartoons like The Jetsons, about a family who lived in space and travelled around on jet scooters”.

His two previous missions have been a source of inspiration in themselves. Paolo Nespoli talks about rediscovering his sense of wonder upon seeing entirely new things, and upon relearning how to do familiar things in a totally different way. This joy of discovery “is perhaps something that adults have lost, but children still have inside them. So going to space winds the clock back, and makes you younger,” he laughs.

Never too old?

60 may be a European record, but Nespoli is not the oldest space-traveller in the world. In 1988, retired US astronaut John Glenn underwent his final mission at the grand old age of 77 as part of the STS-95 crew. According to The New York Times, he was given his place on the team after a concerted lobbying effort in which he asked NASA to be allowed to fly as a human guinea pig for geriatric study. He participated in experiments on sleep monitoring and protein use.

But, given the physical and psychological stamina required, is it wise to embark on a space mission in older age?

Filippo Castrucci, Flight Surgeon at the European Space Agency, doesn’t see why not: “the beautiful thing about humans is that physiology is very relative, age is very relative: so we can have a very young 60-year-old who is performing much better than a very old 30-year-old.”

Training

Even with two space missions under your belt, and the wisdom of age on your side, training is intensive and rigorous. Astronauts have to acquire specific new skill sets before each new launch, depending on the purpose of their mission.

This time, Paolo Nespoli has had to learn how to fit a new machine into the Columbus laboratory module of the ISS, painstakingly repeating the motions needed to do this in a weightless environment, and learning about the mechanics of his task. He’ll have to check that the settings were correctly established back on the ground and that the machine works when it is in place.

It’s not just new challenges that require training. Simply moving about on the ISS can be problematic. Nespoli explains: “You have to become Superman, in the sense that you have to fly, literally. All this takes time, between 4 and 6 weeks, until you no longer have to think each time about how to move from here to there without colliding with anything.”

An army of researchers work on the ground to improve preparations in this respect. Laura Andre-Boyet, one of ESA’s astronaut trainers, works with a piece of equipment that is “trying to understand how the brain and central nervous system work so that we can see if, when weightless, our movements are as precise as they are on the ground”. There wasn’t enough time for French astronaut Thomas Pesquet to take advantage of the equipment before his mission, but Paolo Nespoli and his team will have been able to do so.

Nespoli and his crew-mates, Russian Sergey Ryazansky and the American Randy Bresnik, are nonetheless hoping that their previous experience will come in useful by reducing the time they need to acclimatise once they are in space.

All work and no play?

At 60, it is highly possible that Paolo Nespoli’s third mission will be his last. So what are his aspirations for it? To enjoy it, it seems: “this time I’ll try to enjoy the sensations of being in space a bit more, instead of focusing solely on doing my best to achieve the best result”.

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