Italian prepares for a second ride up to the Space Station
A distress beacon flashes over the snow-covered surroundings. Someone is apparently being evacuated from an improvised shelter. The scene looks strange, somewhat theatrical. But it's not a film studio.
It is miles from anywhere and the snow is Russian. The makeshift tent is in fact a parachute. For all those involved, it is a routine exercise: retrieving a cosmonaut who has just returned from space.
Roberto Vittori has been through this kind of survival training several times. The former Italian Airforce fighter pilot, now an ESA astronaut, recognises the thoroughness of the training given by the Russian instructors at Moscow's Star City where he was interviewed by EuroNews.
"The training is a particularly intense period. We are separated from our families, we have to concentrate a lot and we really must be highly motivated."
All those following courses at Star City are imbued by the history of the place which has seen so many legendary Russian cosmonauts. Today many nationalities are present, all preparing for manned flights to the ISS.
Roberto Vittori already knows the ropes. In April 2002, as part of the Marco Polo mission, he spent 10 days aboard the Space Station. In a few weeks time, he will be the first European to pay a second visit to the ISS.
"Preparation for an astronaut begins at Star City eight months before a mission. In fact I arrived here in August 2004 for my Eneide mission which will blast off from Baïkonur on 15 April. The training involves class studies on space technology and techniques, sessions in the simulators and preparing physically and mentally for the mission ahead."
The Eneide mission will be the tenth time a Soyuz launcher sends astronauts to the Space Station. Vittori will be the flight engineer aboard the Soyuz capsule. With him will be Expedition-11, the station's new occupants for the next six months: veteran Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and American astronaut and scientist John Phillips. Vittori will be returning with the Expedition-10 crew Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov.
Roberto Vittori recalls the sensations that he is soon to experience for the second time. "The lift-off is an extremely strong moment. The minutes leading up to engines ignition are very intense. After having completed the pre-launch routines, there is slight apprehension as we wait. Then one hears the flight controller's final count... "3,2,1". The engines start and the capsule starts to vibrate."
"The launch phase passes very quickly. It is a moment of controlled stress, there is a lot to do and one must focus all one's concentration on the tasks to be accomplished."
"Then, suddenly, one is caught by surprise when the engines shut down and one finds oneself in weightlessness. Only then can one review events and realise that we are 200 kilometres above the Earth, having passed from zero to 27,000 km/h in only nine minutes."
"Realising what one has just achieved, there's no feeling of fear, just enormous respect for modern technology which has made it all possible."
Roberto Vittori will once again experience this on 15 April. The ten-day stay aboard the International Space Station will be packed with a programme of experiments – in fact Europeans have become the most important science users of the ISS.
The Italian astronaut will also be preparing the ground for longer duration missions, six months, which will once again be made possible when the Shuttle is back in service. Meanwhile Vittori and all the ISS partners will be thanking the venerable and trustworthy Soyuz launcher system.
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