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Review: Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut

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Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut
by Samantha Cristoforetti
The Experiment, 2021
paperback, 400 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-61519-842-9

Next spring, a SpaceX Crew Dragon will launch to the International Space Station on the Crew-4 mission. Among the astronauts on board will be the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti, making her second trip to the station. Later in the year she will become commander of ISS Expedition 68, as one might expect for a veteran astronaut like her.

Cristoforetti first flew to the ISS in 2014–15 as part of Expedition 42 crew. In Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut, she recounts her experiences on that mission, as well as the ESA astronaut selection process and the years of training that led up to the flight. It’s a detailed, fascinating on what it’s like to train for, and fly, a mission to the space station.

“However exceptional the voyage I’m about to undertake, however undeniable the risk of a sudden or violent death tonight, the truth is: I feel at home,” she writes of boarding the Soyuz for her first trip to space.

Cristoforetti was an Italian Air Force pilot when she applied in ESA’s astronaut selection round in 2008. In Europe, where astronaut selections are far more infrequent than in the US or Russia (ESA is currently in the midst of the first astronaut selection since that round), this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that she seized even as she was also going through air force training program. She ended up being one of six people, and the only woman, selected by ESA to become astronauts in 2009.

What followed was years of training at ESA and other facilities around the world as she awaited a flight opportunity. Astronauts, she noted, often refer to their training regimes as “slow orbits” as they make their way around the world, from Europe to Russia and then on Japan before going to the US and Canada. She recounts in great detail those experiences leading up to her late 2014 launch, from the friendships made in Star City and Houston to the occasional setbacks along the way, such as a health scare that briefly made her worry that she would not be able to fly.

Those astronaut selection and training recollections take more than half the book, but for good reason. Those experiences put her at ease when it’s time to board the Soyuz spacecraft in November 2014 for her mission to the ISS: “a sense of calm familiarity,” she writes. “However exceptional the voyage I’m about to undertake, however undeniable the risk of a sudden or violent death tonight, the truth is: I feel at home.”

Most of the rest of the book is her experiences on the station, gradually adjusting to life in microgravity and living and working with her American and Russian crewmates (much of which she shared in real time on social media during her time on the ISS.) This portion of the book almost speeds by, like her more than half-year on the station. Her biggest disappointment is not being able to do a spacewalk on her mission. While she trained extensively for EVAs, the suits on the station at the time were sized for lager astronauts, and NASA decided not to send up EVA equipment sized for her when it had to adjust cargo manifests following the loss of a Cygnus mission weeks before her launch.

Diary of an Apprentice Astronaut was first published in Italy in 2018, with an English version published in the UK last year. This version, the first released in the US, includes at the end a relatively recent interview with Cristoforetti as she prepares for her next trip to the ISS. “It’s a pleasant feeling of returning to family,” she said of returning to places like Star City for training. “And going back to the Space Station will be like returning to my home away from home.” And this time, she adds, it may include a spacewalk. “Plans are always in flux in this line of work, even when rockets don’t explode. But I am hopeful.”

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