Ready to go

Smiling and confident
24 April 2002

It’s been a long wait for ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, Mission Commander Yuri Gidzenko and Flight Participant Mark Shuttleworth. But after many months of training, they are now only hours away from launch. Their Marco Polo Soyuz mission will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 12:26 local time on 25 April - 06:26 GMT, 08:26 CEST.

There's nothing left for the crew to do now, except, as Roberto puts it, "to concentrate, to gather our resources for the flight ahead." But there is always one last hurdle for cosmonauts and astronauts alike: the final pre-mission press conference. As a rule, spacefarers would rather face an emergency in orbit than TV cameras, popping photoflashes and a barrage of questions in five or six languages from scores of reporters. "Why did you want to become an astronaut?" is a tough-to-answer question all three have heard dozens of times before. On this occasion, South African Mark Shuttleworth fields it adroitly. "So why did you want to become a journalist?"

Press conference and presentation of the crew at Baikonour
Final pre-launch press conference

Most questions are a little more serious, of course. "What's the biggest challenge ahead?" For Roberto, on his first flight, the answer is clear. "It will be at orbital insertion, when we first become weightless. That's when I'll know how well I'll adapt to space." He's confident, though. "I have had an excellent training here in Russia, and there are two things I am taking with me from my background as an Italian air force officer." He pats a pocket of his flight suit. "There are the first wings I was awarded as a pilot, all those years ago. But the second thing is more important. I'll be flying tomorrow as an Italian officer and a test pilot, and that's what I will carry in my heart. If I'm here today, it's because I have been trained to do more and more difficult work: pilot, test pilot, now astronaut."

Portrait of Roberto Vittori
Roberto Vittori

And on a light note to finish up: surely Roberto will be taking something else from Italy with him? A little parmigaino, perhaps - it's been done before. Roberto laughs, joined by Commander Gidzenko. "Only on Shuttle missions," he explains. "Parmigiano is already a part of the standard cosmonaut rations. But I will be carrying a special delivery to the guys on the International Space Station: some very fine Italian chocolates."

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