Thinking Beyond: ESA Astronaut Luca Parmitano

Our interview with Luca Parmitano, first Italian commander of International Space Station and Italics Magazine’s Italian of the Year 2019.

Photo by ESA – M. Pedoussaut

Our interview with Luca Parmitano, first Italian commander of International Space Station and Italics Magazine’s Italian of the Year 2019

I confess that I have rarely been so excited about an interview. When the number with the +1 international code for the United States pops up on my phone screen, a flashback takes me back to childhood, to those moments when we all dreamed of becoming astronauts, to the books on the planets of the solar system learned by heart, to the space movies and, in particular, to the famous phrase “Houston, we have a problem.” Indeed, this interview is for me a limit I’ve never crossed before, a personal space race in which I still don’t know what awaits me. Yet, as soon as I hear his voice on the other end of the phone, Luca Parmitano – the first Italian commander of the International Space Station – conveys a sense of calm and peace that immediately reveals the strength and passion of a man who, starting from Paternò (Sicily), was able to become one of the leading astronauts of the European Space Agency. The first thing he tells me is that he is aware of the fact that our Italian of the Year 2019 award is an attestation of esteem that the readers wanted to acknowledge more to the role he represents, rather than to his person. However, I immediately realize that what for us Italians has contributed more than any other thing to create the character of Luca Parmitano is not so much the space suit he wears, but rather his personal approach to life which, not surprisingly, made him reach for the stars.

Luca Parmitano ESA
Photo by ESA – M. Pedoussaut. Luca Parmitano emerges from the Soyuz MS-13

The Italian of the Year 2019 prize awarded to you by the Italics Magazine readers is a small but further recognition of an icon of our professional and scientific excellence, capable of becoming the first Italian commander of the International Space Station. For us Italians Luca Parmitano is a national pride. What does this award mean to you?

I am certainly honored that there is an audience who looks at space as something to acknowledge. Indeed, I don’t think that I have been recognized as an individual. In general, when people write to me and ask for advice, it is not Luca Parmitano the man who is admired or esteemed, but Luca Parmitano the astronaut and what he really represents, namely an outlet, a possibility, what I myself imagined as a boy thinking about that technological dimension that almost felt like a dream. Therefore, I believe that those who voted for me as Italian of the Year in your poll, did so because of that symbol, because of that Italian man dressed in white who, with the space suit on and the tricolor on his arm, represents everyone.

I believe that those who voted for me in your poll, did so because of that symbol, because of that Italian man dressed in white who, with the space suit on and the tricolor on his arm, represents everyone.

You have just returned from the ESA Beyond mission: referring to the name itself, what are the areas of research and breakthroughs that, in your opinion, will prove to be more significant for human progress, and how far can we go in the future?

I have always been convinced that we are the ones who set the limits, for better or worse. Some limits help us to protect ourselves, and this is right precisely because they make sure there is some sort of barrier between what we can and must do, and what is by no means reasonable. Then, there are limits that are more flexible: these limits are ethical, and vary over time along with our perception of what is good and what is bad. Finally, there are other limits that, instead, we place on ourselves for lack of imagination: the imaginary limits that we carry within us. I hope that mankind will always move forward making sure that those barriers that we need to protect ourselves are strengthened and widely understood. For example, I refer to the natural limits of growth and exploitation of this planet. At the same time, I hope that the current technical limits will evolve together with our understanding of the universe and of our nature, and that we will overcome those limitations that we invented as our society progresses and evolves, because certain limits are simply an old cultural heritage.

You have just spent 200 days in space, which you recently defined as your other home. Usually there is much talk about the astronauts’ detachment from Earth and their loved ones, but how does it feel – and how much nostalgia can it cause – to come back from up there to down here?

This is a question with very complex implications because, on the one hand, there is definitely the pleasure and the desire to return to the human and social dimension, to what we belong – in all aspects. Indeed, we are social animals and we want to live in a society based on human contact. However, at the moment we all are like astronauts in our small ships, isolated in quarantine. These are very particular times, when our being social animals is put to the test. For those like me who chose or had the opportunity to make a living from space traveling, the International Space Station is not only an end point, but rather an entire journey. As you rightly said, in total I’ve spent a whole year on board the ISS, so it’s a place that I have become very familiar with, and where I lived many personal experiences. As usual, when something ends, you feel a little hole in your heart and, along with the many memories, there is also that perfect, little pain caused by not knowing if you will ever see it again. Then, I have also left my friends and colleagues, the crew that I had the honor of leading as ISS commander. In a way you come back home among your dearest, but you always leave a part of yourself on board. And I think I left something both the first time and this one.

Luca Pramitano Spacewalk
Photo by ESA/NASA. Image from the third spacewalk to service the AMS-02 facility.

How is the overview effect of an entropic country – and therefore a small universe in its own way – like Italy seen metaphorically (and not only) from space?

The overview effect is so called because, as the word itself suggests, it is an overview, so the beauty is that Italy becomes part of a whole. Obviously, just as an astronaut gains this awareness that the planet is an integrated system where each of our individual and collective actions has consequences for the entire environment, in the same way, seeing it from space, we understand how Italy is part of a larger whole. As a European astronaut myself, I am a convinced Europeanist. Seeing Italy surrounded by other countries and integrated in Europe as a big living being, and observing this fully integrated system with its highways, connections and cities that look almost like neurons of a single, huge brain, is certainly a pleasure, but also a moment that consistently reflects my personal beliefs.

How does the role of Italy, and in particular of the Italian Space Agency, make a difference in the ESA?

Italy is one of the three main ESA participants. And, as a founding member, we have always been extremely involved in all the aspects of the agency’s work. Our contribution is made of financial support and policy advice. We are the third highest net contributor to the ESA and this shouldn’t be underestimated. Then, there is also a less tangible, but no less important part which consists of the scientific contribution and human capital of scientists, technicians and instructors of the highest value. These latter not only bring our Italian approach and way of life within the ESA, but also high-quality support, allowing it to grow more and more.

Seeing Italy surrounded by other countries and integrated in Europe as a big living being is a moment that consistently reflects my personal beliefs.

Now I have a question as a fellow graduate in Political Sciences: do you still see an atmosphere of competition between the US and Russia in the space race? More generally, can international cooperation in space-related matters become a reference model for international relations in a broader sense?

I don’t think that I’m making anything up when I say that, today, there is no longer a competitive atmosphere. Indeed, for many years now the focus has been on cooperation. This is because we are all convinced and persuaded that while space is important, it is also extremely expensive – if not impossible – to pursue international objectives in a disunited way. Even a large country like the United States is not able to go at it alone for big projects such as Orion or Gateway, but it relies on international cooperation to achieve very prestigious goals. Therefore, not so much as a political scientist, but more simply as an operational witness, I would say that this competition is outdated and that we are now in another era of space research. As regards the international space cooperation model, I am kind of a dreamer. I would say that the European Union and ESA are in fact complementary as models of international cooperation, despite the great problems resulting from the difficulty of bringing together countries with different cultural backgrounds. The big step we need to take now to move forward, is to make sure that a stronger European Union allows for a more synergic growth of the agency, and thus for programs that are increasingly seen not only as part of the agency itself, but as true European projects. Therefore, I hope that our model will increasingly become a concrete example of international collaboration.

You are used to space traveling for long periods: how are you facing this particularly difficult moment and what would you like to say to those who are in quarantine?

Like everyone else, I try to be patient. As I see it, a problem is something that has a solution. If a problem has a solution, one needs to focus on the solution to solve it. On the other hand, if there is no solution, what appears to be a problem is no longer a problem, but rather a fact. I take it as it is. I do not unduly overload my brain thinking about the things I can’t do in this situation, but I prefer to focus on what I have. What I have now is time – more time than I thought, since I am limited in travel and in my job. So I take the opportunity to use this extra time to learn, grow and evolve in some way, as this is not always the case. With no other option, why not take advantage to study, pick up a book, a musical instrument or a brush to finally start painting? This is the time to dedicate to ourselves, to those projects that we never had time to complete.

Luca Parmitano: Italy Seen from Space
Photo by ESA/NASA-L.Parmitano. Image of Italy captured by Luca Parmitano during his Beyond mission on the International Space Station

First the 2005 plane crash in Belgium, then the life-threatening hydraulic incident of the space helmet: have these episodes ever got you discouraged and, if so, where did you find the strength to resume flying?

That’s ancient history (laughs). Why discouraged, by the way? These episodes are part of life. Risk is like salt: it is important to give a little flavor to what we do. If everything were always simple, straightforward and understandable, it would be a bit like cooking without salt, and the food would lose taste. This doesn’t mean that you have to expose yourself to unnecessary risks, but that you must appreciate what you have. That’s why there was absolutely no need to search for a renewed desire to resume flying, or to consider my experiences from a different point of view. It is about going ahead, becoming aware of both your abilities and limits, and continuing to do your job as best you can.

What is your next big goal? Maybe become the first Italian to set foot on the moon, or reach Mars?

This thing with being the first never sat right with me: these records don’t really make any sense in professional terms. What I would definitely like to do is to continue to contribute to the missions: I am an astronaut, and the astronaut’s job is to work in space. I am very lucky to be quite young and still have the opportunity to make an operational contribution. This is my long-term goal. In the shorter term, we always have a mission ahead. The trick is to understand what this mission is and to pursue it to the best of our abilities. Therefore, after flying in orbit for the Beyond mission, my next task will be to support my European and international colleagues in their missions. I expect to do this and, in a sense, I have already started, because the first step when you return to Earth is to have many debriefings to try to improve the living conditions and the procedures on board, making available your own experience.

We always have a mission ahead. The trick is to understand what this mission is and to pursue it to the best of our abilities.

To conclude, what would you recommend to young people who dream of becoming astronauts in Italy?

First of all, I would say that this is an excellent time to be aspiring astronauts, because in the near future there will certainly be more types of missions. We will continue traveling to the ISS and we will start flying to other destinations. Of course, if they want to go to the moon they will have to deal with me, because I want to go too (laughs). So, in short, for all the other destinations I believe that very soon it will be time to commit more human resources. Then, what I would say in particular to those who are currently studying and preparing for a professional life, is to keep doing their utmost, especially if they wish to enter the world of astronautics, because the best way to be good at your job is to be passionate about what you do. Experience has taught me that astronauts are selected when they are good, but especially when they are able to adapt and love everything they do.

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