Paolo Nespoli: from a parachutist to an astronaut, passing through the raiders ...

(To Giusy Federici)

"The Army, as a first skydiving instructor and then raider, taught me to grow, not to give up, to overcome what seemed to be limits. And then to insist that my dream of becoming an astronaut be realized ..."

Paolo Nespoli does not need any introduction. Astronaut, raider, engineer, Italian compatriot to be proud of. For all of us, who followed him in the news but also with the nose up, it is AstroPaolo, started the 28 July 2017 "on board the Soyuz MS-05 for his third mission, thanks to a bilateral contract between NASA and the Italian Space Agency involving ESA astronauts. Paolo has completed more than 60 experiments during the Vita mission, which stands for Vitality, Innovation, Technology and Skills. The 14 December 2017 has landed after 139 days in space. With 313 total days in space, through the three missions, Paul is the second ESA astronaut with more experience", Reads the website of the European Space Agency.

His latest venture in the ISS International Space Station has made epoch, for the importance of the mission itself and why Nespoli had 60 years. But if you see him is a boy, a dry and well-groomed physicist and a vital and curious spirit, he is one who continually looks ahead, who sets himself objective, who does not rest on his laurels.

Paolo Nespoli does not pull it, yet he could. Instead he remained "one of us": although his is certainly a particular and special life choice, he is linked to childhood in his Lombard village, he is proud of his life as a paratrooper and raider, he is happy because that of the astronaut it was a child's dream that came true.

We met him in Rome, passing by with the members of his crew, the Americans Randy Bresnik, Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Rei and the Russian Sergey Ryazansky, all with their respective families, just back from the States and running for a series of commitments important, including those with the chief of staff of the Army (general of the army corps Salvatore Farina), the meeting with Pope Francis and a great desire to show to those who are not Italian the beauty of our country.

Are these Italian days intense?

Well, these days with the crew are intense by definition, because it is tradition that at the end of a space mission, we Europeans take a tour of our country with them. And we like to make ourselves a little 'beautiful, from a certain point of view, we like to show the beauties of Italy, hospitality and even do interesting and important things, such as meeting with the Pope. so for about fifteen people between hotels, travel, transport, etc ... is not easy. But we managed to do a lot of good things including, with the support of the Chief of Staff of the Farina Army, a visit to the Base at Sea of ​​the raiders, in San Rossore. We were in Modena and Bologna - because we could not go and see two of the Italian excellences, Lamborghini and Ferrari - and from there the families took a train and came to Rome and we, instead, got on an Army helicopter and we had a meeting with the raiders.

It was a homecoming ...

Yes. I did the course in 1980, among other things right there at the Base a Mare. The interesting thing is that the raiders of today, having been missing for thirty years, I know little, except for someone at high levels. There are very few of my colleagues left at the time, most are now retired. But they were all there, I saw friends from thirty, forty years ago, we remembered the things we did as children, the mission in Lebanon (Italcon, from 1982 to 1984), the exercises of that time. We were greeted by the commander of the regiment Giuliano Angelucci, by the raiders of yesterday and today, we were together for over an hour, then we took the helicopter and arrived in Rome.

It is normal that there were all, Nespoli is a pride, for the whole of Italy and for the raiders of the 9 ° Col Moschin ...

Not long ago, at a press conference, they asked me what the Army gave me ... I never thought of becoming a professional soldier, I discovered the military with the draft. When I was called, I left and found myself in this place, which was also pretty tough back then. It was the Military School of Parachuting with hazing, discipline, the need to pass a whole series of exams and continuous tests. I felt good, I ended up in the gym as an instructor and at the end of my year of draft I decided to stay. I decided it because I wanted to be an astronaut even if I thought it was impossible. I thought it was like when you asked children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

And the answers were always the astronaut or the firefighter ...

Those who listened to you replied: "okay, good ... study!". And this seed of this astronaut had ended up in the drawer, abandoned. So, after the draft, first I became a parachuting instructor and then a raider: an Army competition notice came out and I applied. At the end of two years, I got the patent. And yesterday (June 8, ed) at the Base a Mare - and I enjoy it a lot - they gave me the parchment that they had not delivered to me at the time and with the date at that time, May 25, 1981, patent no. 632 and signed by Colonel Angelo Passafiume (today president of ANIE, ed) who was also there.

But I want to say that with the Army and especially with the raiders, I simply learned that ... well, when you follow a raiding course and do certain things, where basically it's all a challenge, there are no limits and you're asked for things that they seem impossible and then you understand that with the right skills, with the right knowledge, with the right training, the right equipment and especially with the right team - why ever or rarely you are alone, is a team that performs an action - with all these things, you can really get far and do what seems impossible. This was one of the biggest teachings. I in the Army, among the raiders, I learned to grow up. And to stay what I am.

I was born in a village near Milan, Verano Brianza, where in a certain sense I was "spoiled" because everything worked, there were no problems, there was work, there was no need to study at the University. My mother wanted me to go to work in the factory in front of the house and I was hired as an electrician because I was good and I liked it. So why not? It was a perfect place, where you went in the morning to 8, lunch at home and then free evening, then the family, the holidays, etc.

It was the mentality of a different generation, just out of the war ....

Sure. I grew up with nine other boys of my age in the same small town. Everyone got married at 20 years, everyone lives there (except one who has taken home in the nearby village), etc. And then there are me, who are around the world. They meet every Friday evening for a reunion. And I, as soon as I arrive there, maybe from Australia, I wonder where they are, within the home of those who host the group as if I had never left, I sit down and eat the sandwich with salami, you drink half a beer, you discuss of everything and then we say goodbye. It's very beautiful…

However, I am also one who has acquired knowledge and skills with the Army and the raiders and that, also for this reason, has decided to go back to dusting this dream as a child ...

The passage from an incursor to an astronaut, how did it happen?

I was twenty-six, I didn't speak English, I didn't have a degree, it was tough. It was a really long step and I would even say a bit risky, because if you analyze the chances of becoming an astronaut are almost zero. However, on the one hand with the unconsciousness of the raider for whom everything is possible, on the other with hard work, learning from mistakes and tenacity, with so many difficulties, in the end I managed to be taken first in the Corps European astronauts and then it took another nine years to participate in the first mission into space. When I got back they told me. "Nespoli, this is your first and only mission ...". Then I was entrusted with another one of long duration and again, “Nespoli, this second mission has arrived by a miracle, there won't be another one…” And so until the last one.

Now, at 61, in fact, it will be hard to do it again, even for the age limit according to the statute of the European Space Agency and because we have young astronauts. We'll see. Now I find myself in the situation of trying to understand what to do when I grow up. I'm trying to brush up all the dreams that I had put in the drawer thinking that they were not feasible. But given the precedents, why not?

Find yourself in space, in the infinitely large, what do you feel?

Space is a diamond with many facets. There is the fact that one realizes an impossible dream, that works at the highest world levels, that you personally feel satisfied, that you do important things for all of us. So you feel you have spent your time in a functional way and that makes you feel proud. It's a very nice feeling, including the fact that you live emotions that only you can experience, the fact of being in a place where you do not feel the force of gravity anymore and this forces you to grow, to change, to look at things in a way different. On the one hand it is a difficult thing to do, on the other hand it is stimulating for me, because I felt like a boy discovering this new world and trying things that did not come and then, slowly, succeed. And being able to do something impossible having found the way to do it and, in some cases, communicate to Houston that an action can be carried out in a different way from what one thinks, to feel "stand by", which means that they are analyzing and then the next time the procedures arrive to do it exactly as you said, it is an important fact. I managed to get some procedures to change in Houston.

For example?

For example the way to conduct certain experiments or to adjust the material. There is a device, in the 3 Node, that serves to regenerate oxygen and its maintenance lasted four hours. There, time is very important and four hours was like throwing it away. I found a way to divide the time to be used for this maintenance in half by proposing to fix the lid of that equipment in a different way. I changed the arrangement of some furniture in the station, for example, the arrangement of the table etc. Ten years of space station, the Italian astronaut arrives and you change the attitude and everyone who says they have never thought about it and that it works much better this way ...

And then there is the possibility to look at the earth from a unique point of view, as you can see from certain photos ...

From up there, you look at the Earth with completely different eyes. The pictures are made by everyone and if you can do a little with the camera, beautiful pictures come out. But it's not us who are good, it's the beauty of the Earth seen from up there, the feeling of being an Earthling, of understanding that this is your home. And you feel it, that's where you want to go, where you want to be.

Almost an umbilical cord that binds us?

Yes, it is the feeling that the earth is great but also that we have to start working together, everyone, to understand what we are doing, to preserve it. We are different regions, nations or continents, but we are all on the same planet. It must affect what they do in Australia as they must be interested in what we do. And anyway we have to work together, because together we are inducing changes that could be catastrophic. From up there you can see it and feel the delicacy of this planet, which seems balanced and see how we humans now, we have clinging everywhere, cut the forests, see the huge and boundless cities, see the rivers all channeled, the artificially built islands.

And the debris, which in addition to submerging the planet are now also in space, from satellites to anything else?

Space debris is another problem that needs to be addressed. And it is true, we have also managed to impact the space environment. But without going into space, one looks down and what he sees is incredible: in Asia, for example. We have impoverished the fish from the Mediterranean. And in Asia ... look down where there are lights and people and notice the big cities, the streets, this web of us humans resting on the planet. But then, watching carefully, you see lights all over the ocean, lights that seem bigger, stronger, more extensive than a city. And it's true. Note the large areas as whole continents, in the oceans, especially in the Pacific, where there are ships that fish with lights and throughout the night, without ever stopping. It is not the sardine fishing ship, the level is industrial, a heavy exploitation of resources. Do we know if these riches can be regenerated? We humans do not ask these questions, but a boat of a nation, off more than twenty miles, can do what it wants, throwing oil, garbage, fishing endlessly.

Returning to the dreams of a child, Paolo Nespoli what does he want to do when he grows up, even if he will hardly close with space?

I'm looking around, I'm trying to figure out what to do. I should hang the astronaut suit from the nail, which will probably happen, but that does not mean you can not fly in space. I'm sure everyone will be able to go into orbit as tourists in the future. And so I expect, in about twenty years if I'll be able to do it. For now, I would like to devote myself to strange projects, things that advance our knowledge, bring back to earth the teachings I had from space, bring them back to everyday life.

What lessons?

I'm talking about many things, such as error management, which is very important. I'm talking about how to manage risks. I speak of trying to achieve unattainable goals, even in medicine. And also to entice our children to take an interest in science, technology, mathematics, in things that might seem abstruse but in the end are interesting and can give us an important professionalism and not at the expense of football or being an actor. or something else. Today, for children, if you take a tour on TV, their examples always have to do with the world of entertainment or football and if you ask one of them what he wants to be when he grows up, he is more likely to want to be a footballer or the actor, rather than the astronaut, as we dreamed of as children. But one thing does not exclude the other.

(photo: NASA / Army / author)