Is Samantha Cristoforetti the Most Awesome Astronaut Ever?
Or is she one of a new wave of ISS staff who wield social media tools with the skill of the Kardashians?
Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti drinks coffee from a specially designed microgravity cup, the seven windows of the International Space Station’s cupola throwing up a panoramic view of a cloudy Earth behind her. “Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised,” she writes in a tweet, quoting Star Trek’s Captain Kathryn Janeway.
In a YouTube video, she glides headfirst through a doorway and flips into a standing position like some kind of space ninja before launching into her monologue: “Hello, and welcome to Node 1.” When she’s not wearing her Star Trek uniform, she dons geeky t-shirts sporting everything from an astronaut playing guitar to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references.
Cristoforetti would have returned to Earth today, except that a supply ship — the Russian Progress spacecraft — burned up before reaching the ISS, pushing back her departure until early June. The extra month will not be lonely. She has spent her 171 days on the ISS in the presence of just a handful of other astronauts, and yet she has more company than ever before thanks to the 493,000 people who follow her on Twitter.
Cristoforetti belongs to a new category of astronauts who are just as adept at posting a witty Facebook post as they are at performing a science experiment in minimal gravity. The breakout example is Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who showed the world what happens when you cry in space. But astronauts have been posting to social media directly since 2010, when the ISS first received an internet hookup.
Like Hadfield, Cristoforetti brings a highly personal touch to her social media posts. Well, not too personal. We don’t know if maneuvering around space debris makes her nervous or who she misses at night. But her Twitter followers do know that dried apples are one of her favorite snacks (“snack time is a great opportunity to put the right rocket fuel in your body”) and she likes reading from the miniature books astronauts are permitted to pack. She treats us to the gorgeous moments that unexpectedly materialize in space — whether that’s an aerial view of the Northern Lights or an unsealed straw beading liquid. We also see the not so glamorous moments. Have you ever wondered what a bathroom looks like on the ISS? Cristoforetti has the answer.
In other words, she rocks. But she doesn’t rock the boat. Being awesome is part of the job. “Because we are a publicly funded activity, it’s our responsibility to share the experience with the widest number of people possible,” says Jules Grandsire, a communications officer with the European Space Agency. “We see it a bit as our responsibility.”
Ground Control to Major Tom
and may God’s love be with you
When I was a child, my mom liked to demonstrate that women were equals and capable of all sorts of scientific feats. She did her job a little too well, because I would not realize for many years that women did not rule the world.
Once she took me to see Mae Jemison speak at one of the ornate theaters in downtown Minneapolis. Jemison is both female and black, and had repeatedly cast away humanity’s prejudices ahead of her launch into Earth’s orbit. She is a dancer with a medical degree. She has done it all. I asked her a question in front of the entire audience and she answered. I was so inspired I turned the experience into a short story and did a mini book-tour around my elementary school. Now that I think about it, I owe the words on this page to Jemison.
Public outreach has always been woven into the DNA of astronauts. The first men and women in space were symbols of the power of the USSR and United States (and maybe still are). Former astronauts give talks and write books. They are a humanized side to the science and politics that go into every space shuttle.
But most of us never have the chance to meet an astronaut. Their presence is a blip on the TV that comes and goes with successful launches and landings. It’s a shame, because there are a whole lot of 9 years olds who would love to walk up to that microphone and ask a question.
That access is changing. In the age of the internet, we can instantly talk to someone 12,000 miles away on the opposite side of the globe. No one can hear you scream in space, but at least your Tweets can travel the 155 miles to Earth.
In 2015, you can turn to Twitter or Facebook or YouTube and watch as the liveblog rolls in. Of the six people currently in space, five are chronicling their ISS stay on Twitter. Cristoforetti held live Q & A sessions and recorded videos demonstrating what daily life is like. I have never spoken with Cristoforetti, and yet she feels familiar. She is my friend in the space business.
This has been a big boost for space agencies’ media mentions. Who can resist the story of an Italian astronaut finally getting a decent cup of coffee in space? As of this month, Cristoforetti has access to an Italian-designed espresso machine that can brew a cup in 3 minutes, no matter how it is oriented. Astronauts can drink from their microgravity cups or from a pouch with an aerated straw — so they can savor the smell, of course.
But it also makes us first-hand witnesses to the feats of all astronauts, whether they are male or female, Canadian or Russian. We are invited into Cristoforetti’s laboratory, where she cultures microbes and experiments on stem cells. And for Hadfield, the rockstar status has become literal. He will release an album later this year recorded entirely in space. He still has 1.3 million followers on Twitter who follow his adventures on Earth.
“This is our best, more efficient way to inspire the young generations to get interested in what we are doing,” Grandsire says.
This is Ground Control
to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule
if you dare
I was surprised to learn astronauts compose nearly all of their own social media posts. As NASA public affairs officer Nicole Cloutier pointed out, “They have very busy timelines on orbit and don’t have special time allocated for outreach via social media.”
Both NASA and ESA said they do not require astronauts to post to social media. If someone is interested, NASA sets up optional training sessions ahead of their launch. The only formal lessons ESA conducts are in photography.
Once in orbit, the astronauts post when they can. Sometimes they send images back to Earth or dictate a post if the ISS internet connection is laggy because, you know, space. In the case of Christoforetti, the stream is constant and constantly personal. “Buona notte dallo spazio,” she tweets, tucking us in from her orbit each night. And then she herself retires for the night — well, three or four nights, as the ISS flies.
“The only direction really is be sensible. Don’t be stupid,” Gransire says. “But that’s not specific to social media.”
The same way that social media can help us feel close to astronauts, it can help them feel close to Earth. Grandsire said ESA has overwhelmingly heard positive things about the connectivity the medium provides. It helps to know that humanity is thinking about you when you’re hurtling through orbit.