Zero gravity

Paolo Nespoli on the Fiorano circuit; photo Elisabetta Claudio

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli is a man who has experienced the kind of brilliantly intense sensations most of us can only dream of. as he explains to The Official Ferrari Magazine, space travel creates a limitless feeling of freedom, as well as providing a unique view of mankind and the planet we all live on

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Paolo Nespoli, astronaut, orbits the Earth at 28,500 km/h. Among other headspinning facts, this means that he and his fellow space explorers see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every day.
Nespoli’s most recent mission lasted 159 days; that’s 5,088 sunrises and sunsets. Each orbit takes about an hour and a half, and Nespoli gets to view the rest of us – all 6.8 billion of us – from a vantage point some 355km above Earth. This is a man who has quite literally acquired a unique world view. Borders and barriers – physical, political and even philosophical – don’t have quite the same potency up there. Nespoli also speaks, if not at 28,500km/h, then certainly very rapidly. It’s worth keeping up with him, though, for this is a man who has seen and experienced things most of us can only dream of. You would not want to find yourself beside him at a dinner party; his anecdotes are out of this world. As it happens, we’re actually having lunch in the Montana restaurant, near Fiorano. As well as myself and the Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Antonio Ghini, we’ve been joined by Scuderia Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali and Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, who’s taking a break from sessions on the simulator. Formula One pilota meets spaceman: it’s quite a summit. Here’s how it plays out: Nespoli talks, we listen. With a handful of crew in space and a 150-strong support team back in mission control, the parallels between F1 and space exploration are apposite, and not just in terms of the materials used.

‘Things don’t always go the way you think they’re going to go,’ Nespoli says, as he slides a piece of salami onto his fork. ‘That’s very interesting,’ Domenicali replies, with a knowing smile, ‘very interesting indeed.’ When the food arrives, Nespoli – a big, broad man, with the sort of strong features the late Lucien Freud would have enjoyed capturing – leans back and visibly savours the moment. Food, as anyone who’s watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Sunshine, Apollo 13 or a ream of other great films, is one of those distinct imponderables when it comes to space travel. ‘A lot of thought goes into the food, the balance of vitamins and nutrients and so on,’ says Nespoli. ‘But also from the social point of view, and the importance of gathering the crew together. Around 80 different types of food were prepared for us, but the guys who did it were American so their concept of food isn’t like the Italian one [mischievous laugh]. You lose your sense of taste up there, so the nutritionists pump the food full of flavours, and it becomes overly spicy. There were times when I thought, “I want a pizza. Tomato. Mozzarella. Some basilico…” But I couldn’t have it.’ He did, however, hire his own food specialist, though the process was surprisingly fraught. Missing those gastro treats from home, he eventually asked a colleague to send over prosciutto, using special diplomatic channels. ‘Even then we never managed to get the salami through…’
By now, Nespoli is on the verbal rev limiter, as demonstrative as a 458 Italia in third gear on a mountain pass. He waves his big hands around as he emphasises a point, effortlessly commanding the table. Such is the magnitude of space travel – sending mankind into space is arguably our single greatest achievement – that it’s perhaps understandable that we find ourselves trying to understand Nespoli’s experiences in terms we can all relate to. Floating above our planet in a zero g environment, of course, means that even everyday tasks become a major challenge.

‘The discovery process makes you feel like a little kid in a room full of toys’

Water is far too precious on the International Space Station (ISS) to be squandered on conventional ablutions, so the astronauts use specially designed wipes. They exercise using unique weights that have been designed to offer the normal amount of resistance, even if there is no gravity to work against. Bodily excretions like sweat and urine are recycled; the latter can be purified enough to extract oxygen or refined further to become drinkable. And cans of foodstuff have little Velcro tabs attached to them, to stop them floating away. ‘The discovery process makes you feel like a little kid in a room full of toys,’ Nespoli says. Like many of us, Nespoli stared into the heavens as a small child and let his mind wander: possibly the greatest, most unfettered freedom of all. ‘Going into space gives you the freedom of dreaming something impossible and seeing it happen,’ he says. ‘I tell this to kids all the time: dream impossible dreams. Because once in a while even the impossible ones might become a reality. You have to force yourself to dream, otherwise you’ll clip your wings before you even start.’ Born near Milan in 1957, he was four when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in April 1961, and remembers watching the Apollo moon landings in August 1969. Unlike the rest of us, however, Nespoli’s childhood dreams soon hardened into a deeply impressive curriculum vitae, such that it looks like he could have been born to be an astronaut. Drafted into the Italian army in 1977, he wasted no time turning the situation to his advantage. ‘I decided I may as well get something out of it. So I became a paratrooper and learned how to jump out of aircraft. After two months, I was chosen to be an instructor.’ He later became a Special Forces operator, and served in the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force in Beirut in the early 1980s, when the city was in turmoil. After his military career, he graduated in Aerospace Engineering, got an MSC in Aeronautics and Astronautics, and studied mechanical engineering in Florence, before joining the European Space Agency in 1991, where he effectively trained astronauts. After a detachment working on the Euromir project, he went to NASA in 1996, and in 1998 was finally selected himself as an astronaut by the Italian Space Agency. It was a moment of personal triumph that had to be rationally measured against the possibility that he may never actually participate in a mission: many of the chosen few never do. Nevertheless, years of dedicated training followed, during which Nespoli qualified to operate the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm, attended the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City near Moscow, and generally applied himself with his customary discipline. It’s worth mentioning that he also became an expert scuba diver and acquired his private pilot’s licence, on top of everything else. ‘The moment of selection is probably the biggest hurdle to get over,’ he says. ‘There are tens of thousands of people who would love that job, and there are maybe one or two vacancies. I myself applied three times. You don’t need to be superhuman, but you obviously do need to be physically OK. ‘Beyond that, it’s a very complex process, even quite obscure in some ways. The assumption is that someone who has a technical background is a better candidate than, say, a lawyer. Sometimes I feel like a highly trained electrician or plumber; in space you can’t phone someone and ask them to fix your toilet, you have to fix it yourself. You have to fix everything yourself! The selection committee also needs to establish whether someone is “trainable”: can this guy learn Russian in a reasonable amount of time? He can scuba-dive, but can he learn to fly an aircraft? Can this guy work under pressure? I don’t envy the people who are part of the selection committee.’

Nespoli clearly had the “right stuff”. Finally, in June 2006, he was assigned to Space Shuttle mission STS-120; on 23 October 2007 he was on-board the Shuttle Discovery tasked with carrying out a number of key technical jobs which, as an intra-vehicular activity astronaut (IVA), meant regular space-walks. It’s almost impossible to imagine how thrilling that must have felt. Most recently, Nespoli flew on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as part of the MagISStra mission, taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhst an on 15 December 2010, returning to Earth on 23 May 2011. During that mission, Nespoli talked with Ferrari’s Chairman Luca di Montezemolo, and an invitation to Maranello was extended. Today, the Chairman has welcomed the astronaut into his office, shown him around the premises (closer than ever to a NASA-style technological campus than a car factory), and invited him to drive a 458 Italia round Fiorano with Massa as his tutor. Nespoli, a highly qualified engineer remember, is clearly fascinated by what he sees at Maranello. So much so that I feel guilty asking him to sit down for half an hour to talk, especially as the test drive is yet to happen. Inevitably, as a speed junkie myself, I want to know just how intense blast-off really is. ‘Actually, when the Shuttle lifts off, it’s kind of gradual,’ he observes. ‘There’s a jolt at the beginning, when it clears the tower you are doing 320km/h, and 40 seconds later it’s Mach One. Eight and a half minutes later, you are travelling at 28,000 km/h which is 7km per second, starting from zero on the launch pad. So calculate the acceleration there… ‘Driving the Ferrari will be a different sort of experience,’ he muses, ‘because what you have in a car is a continual change of dynamics. Astronauts don’t experience that. The Shuttle is limited to 3g, not just to protect the crew but because the structure can’t take much more than that. Re-entry on Soyuz is 4.5g for a minute and a half, so you risk blacking out, and there’s an emergency re-entry profile where you hit 9g. You have to remember that this is after you have been in space for six months. When you’ve been in zero g that long, even 1g is enough to make you a little bit unwell.’ The big hands thump down on the table. He cuts an imposing figure, so much so that you wonder how it was being curled up in a foetal position in the confines of the Soyuz capsule. Turns out that Nespoli only just fitted, because his back is longer than his legs. ‘If I had been in proportion, I wouldn’t have been able to fly on Soyuz. You are unable to move for up to six hours. You might get an itch on your nose, but you can’t do anything about it, so you don’t think about it. Somehow the body adapts; if you are in a situation where you can’t scratch your nose, your nose does not develop an itch. Interesting, huh?’ Six hours immersed in a swimming pool in the full astronaut suit, along with countless other exercises, helps develop the ability to cope with the various demands and unwanted itches. But as numerous writers and filmmakers have pondered, space travel isn’t just a physical challenge, it’s an existential one, too. The rational engineer in Nespoli presumably helped keep his mind intact. But still; it proved almost impossible not to ask some of the biggest questions of all.

‘I felt the fragility of the planet. It’s a beautiful, gorgeous blue globe, but it’s made of glass?’

‘I didn’t go as far as to use the experience to reevaluate my religious beliefs,’ he says candidly. ‘But once you’re up there you realise that there are so many things we don’t know. How many worlds are there around the universe? If you think that there are millions if not billions of stars, I cannot believe from a mathematical point of view that there is just one Earth. There must be thousands of planets similar to ours. [pause] I have this feeling that we are not alone.’ Then there is the ecological question. While global warming continues to be a controversial matter for the scientific community, it’s worth listening to someone who has developed a unique perspective. ‘Our planet is really a ship floating around the universe,’ Nespoli argues. ‘Whether you like it or not, we are all on the same ship. Up there we cross over Europe in less than a minute. You can see how close we all are. As a humanity we are all together and we need to think in terms of a global entity. Not least because we aresignificantly changing this ship. ‘The footprint humanity has is astonishing. If you think of our planet as a peach, then the Earth’s atmosphere is like the little velour that encircles the top of the peach’s skin. It’s that thin. And when the sun goes down up there, which by the way only takes about eight seconds, you then see for yourself how thin it really is. And if that little layer disappears, we are gone. So, really we need to be very careful about what we are doing to this ship of ours.’ He pauses, and stares thoughtfully out of the window.

‘I felt the fragility of the planet. It’s a beautiful, gorgeous blue globe, but it’s made of glass and if you drop it will shatter into two thousand pieces. And we are kind of holding it, so we have to be careful. Now, is this theology, is this God, is this something else… I don’t know. I’m not sure if there is a God or not, but what I do know is that we need to be careful.’ The Chairman, and a Ferrari 458 Italia, await. The big man is on his feet, and out of the door in an instant. We gather outside, under an intense summer sun. ‘I look at these cars,’ Nespoli says, ‘and as an aerospace engineer I’m amazed at the shapes and forms and aerodynamics.’ The rationalist pauses and then reaches for a different set of allusions. ‘It’s like looking at a Roman statue or a Rembrandt…’

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  • Sanjay Ahuja

    a lovely article….only an astronaut would describe the world as a ship …and use words like peach skin and glass etc to explain its fragility!!!

    as for his view on ferrari”s 458 etc….read on !!!