Milan-born Samantha Cristoforetti made history this week by becoming the first European woman to command the International Space Station (ISS), a project involving NASA (United States), Rosocosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), and the European (ESA) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies.
In an inspirational and symbolic gesture, Comandante Cristoforetti — an astronaut with the ESA — ceremoniously accepted the brass key from her predecessor, Russian Oleg Artemyev, and thanked all the Italians who supported her over the years.
Affectionately nicknamed "AstroSamantha," Cristoforetti’s extraordinary appointment adds to her long list of “firsts”. She was the first Italian woman in space, the first woman lieutenant and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, the brewer of the first cup of espresso in space, and the first person to make a TikTok video aboard the ISS.
She maintains both the European and female astronaut endurance records and until 2017 held the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a European astronaut (199 days, 16 hours). In 2015, then-President Sergio Mattarella awarded her The Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic — one of Italy’s highest honors.
Where it started
Born in Milan in 1977, Cristoforetti attended liceo scientifico (scientific high school) in Trento, Italy. She went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the Technical University of Munich, continuing her aeronautical science studies in France, Russia and Italy before joining the ESA in 2009.
When Cristoforetti was 18, she took part in an exchange program in the United States that brought her to NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, igniting her passion for interstellar travel. To date, she is only the second Space Camp alum to go into orbit.
Cristoforetti has indicated that, in sharing her Space Camp experience, she hopes to inspire others to dream big and “just go for it,” she says. “Go for it and maybe find ways, like I did, to [keep the interest] alive. Meet other people that have the same dream [...] It then becomes more real for you.”
Cristoforetti’s trailblazing is sure to inspire little girls in Italy and around the world. Her words of encouragement to them are both firm and self-effacing: “Have faith that you will find your path and just try to give your best at what you’re doing.”