"One day I got a call from a French number, I answered and heard a male voice speaking to me in English with a Germanic accent. I believe there is only one person speaking like that in Europe: Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General”. That day, his voice informed Politecnico’s Alumna Anthea Comellini that she had just been chosen by ESA out of 23,000 applicants to join the Austronaut Reserve, made up of 17 astronauts among whom she is the only Italian woman. We call her at the French headquarters of Thales Alenia Space, where she works as an engineer in the R&D department, and she tells us about her journey.
Where does the journey to the Moon begin?
I started raising my head to the sky as a child. I was fascinated by the technology that humankind was able to deploy in order to venture into this kind of exploration, and also by the complexity involved: how many people were needed, how much technological development and how much preparation was required. One of the first science fiction films I remember was Armageddon, certainly not a particularly scientifically accurate work, but I was immediately struck by the image of the shuttle on the launch pad. Since I was a Star Wars fan, I thought it was science fiction. It was after a few days, talking to my parents, that I discovered that the shuttle really existed and that it really did leave from that launch pad. I told myself then that some Star Wars stuff could be done. In the same way, I was fascinated by the pioneers of aviation, because we were not born to fly but all these years of scientific and technological advances have enabled us to do so and help us pursue studies that are not an end in themselves but have real impacts on humankind. This gave me a lot of strength and fuelled my passion.
After discovering the technological truth behind science fiction, how did you proceed?
The first sliding door in my life was towards the end of secondary school, when I asked myself the question: a career in humanities or in science? I chose the second option. There was a time when I even considered joining the Air Force Academy in Pozzuoli but I realised that I would have preferred to study aircraft instead of flying them. I felt that mine was a craving for technological knowledge. So I chose the three-year degree in Aerospace Engineering. That which Politecnico did for me has been crucial for me to get where I am and become who I am now. The way I studied and assimilated things allowed me to develop a global vision. Having spent so many hours on books to assimilate concepts in the most diverse disciplines has made me aware that I may not remember a formula by heart but I know where to look for it and how to apply it. This, in a multidisciplinary field like space, is a fundamental value. Astronauts are often described as 'generalists', i.e., people who get away with everything, and that is a perfect description of me.
How long did the selection last and what did it consist of?
There were six steps in one and a half years. The first step was to send your CV together with a motivation letter and filling in a questionnaire. From there, we went from being 23,000 to 1,400 applicants. The second step was a day of psychometric tests very similar to those of airline companies for the selection of aspiring pilots: tests of perceptual speed, visual and auditory long-term and short-term memory, hand-eye coordination, multitasking and endurance of attention, and finally tests of mathematics and technique. After this second steps there were 400 candidates left. We were then invited to Cologne, to the Astronaut Training Centre, for a psychological assessment day. We did exercises in pairs, to evaluate communication skills under stress, and group exercises to see how we interacted with the other candidates. On the same day, we had an interview with a psychologist and a panel with a jury consisting of psychologists, HR department members and former astronauts. In my case, I met Luca Parmitano. Following this step, there were a hundred of us left and we underwent a week of medical and physical tests. Fifty of us were given access to the last two stages: an initial interview with a board consisting of senior members from the HR department, astronauts and also people from the communications department, because at that point the ability to publicise space issues also came into play. Twenty-six of us had a last interview with the ESA director. I was quite relaxed that day because I knew I had come as far as I could go and had nothing to complain about. I had emphasised that for me becoming an astronaut had not been an obsession, because I had made my way by trying to become a good engineer first and foremost, and the rest were convergences that led me to apply. They asked me if I thought this meant I was less motivated than someone who had directed ten years of their life towards this goal. My response was that mine was a less selfish approach, as rather than being obsessed about achieving something, I was interested in the usefulness of that which we can do as a space community.
You have therefore been appointed as a reserve astronaut, what does a reserve astronaut do?
The reserve is primarily intended to ensure continuity in the event of a generation change. Then, since we are in the historical moment of the advent of commercial operators, missions are no longer only paid for by institutions, and this opens up space tourism for those who can afford it but also gives smaller European countries easier access to missions with astronauts of their own nationality. In the meantime I continue my work as an engineer, especially on rendezvous. That is, I am in charge of enabling satellites to make autonomous trajectories without the need for ground support. This has several applications: autonomous rendezvous are used, for instance, to recover space debris and return it to the atmosphere or to perform life extinguishing, refuelling and repair services. I feel I am contributing in a way that is good, we are trying to maximise the resources already in orbit, we are cleaning up that which was done in previous years when launches were freer and no thought was given to the aftermath.
Speaking of this, what is the value of sustainability in space?
These types of orbital systems are an excellent example of a circular and sustainable economy: up to 80 percent of the water is recycled, they are totally energy independent thanks to solar panels and they help us develop technologies that have a return on earth, which we can apply in our everyday lives. The same applies to lunar exploration, where the touch-down is no longer nationalistic, it is not a matter of who gets there first but of trying to build more or less permanent habitats and utilise resources found on site for water and oxygen production and protection against radiation.
Since you have been appointed a member of the astronaut reserve and you look up at the sky, what is it like to see the moon?
I don't look up at the sky anymore because it scares me (laughs, ed.). Sometimes, as a joke, when I am with my boyfriend, I look at the moon and wink at it.
When you meet peers or younger people, what is the message you want to convey?
To the younger ones, I say do not be afraid to make difficult choices. I then try to draw attention to how wrong a certain type of narrative is, which is still present, that if you are a girl and choose a technical-scientific career you will have a hard time, because it is not a place for women. Finally, I say that one does not necessarily become an astronaut. I did well, but one of the last stages, the medical tests, does not depend on our efforts and passing it is not a merit. So we cannot condition our happiness on a goal that entails such a large component of luck. I always say that if it had gone wrong I would not have felt like a failure. Even without being an astronaut, all the way through, I would still have found myself passionately doing that which I love.
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