Only six Italian citizens in human history have ventured beyond the thin veil of Earth’s atmosphere and into space, and today (Wednesday, 15 October) marks the 50th birthday of Roberto Vittori, the only one of his countrymen to have flown as many as three times into space, the first European to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and the last European to travel into orbit aboard the shuttle. In May 2011, Vittori served as Mission Specialist Two on STS-134, the final voyage of Endeavour, which delivered the long-awaited Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)-2 to the station. Having been selected and trained alongside NASA’s 1998 class of astronauts, Vittori also participated in a pair of Soyuz visiting missions to the station in April 2002 and April 2005 and accrued more than 35 days in orbit, making him the third most experienced Italian spacefarer of all time.
Born, somewhat propitiously, in the town of Bomarzo (“City of Mars”), in the ancient city of Viterbo—within Italy’s central Lazio region, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Rome—on 15 October 1964, Vittori grew up with a fascination for aviation and space exploration, but never dreamed that the dream would come to pass. “Very small, in the middle of a very beautiful forest,” he said of Bomarzo in a NASA interview, “and I grew up playing soccer outside my school. I was very good in defense and I loved playing in the woods with my friends.” To achieve his goal of becoming a pilot, the military provided the key. Vittori graduated from the Italian Air Force Academy in 1989 with a degree in aeronautical science, then undertook basic training with the U.S. Air Force at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. Returning to Italy, he flew Tornado GR1 aircraft with the 155th Squadron, 50th Wing, in Piacenza, qualified for day and night air-to-air refueling, and served as a formation leader.
Vittori later attended the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md. Upon receiving accreditation as a test pilot in 1995, he returned to his homeland and worked through the Italian Air Force’s accident prevention course at Guidonia Air Force Base, near Rome, and returned to the United States in 1996 to complete the requirements of the Accident Investigation course at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. He also served at the Italian Test Centre as project pilot for the development of the Eurofighter EF2000 and was the national representative in the Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile research and development program. Vittori later taught the aerodynamics element of the Italian Air Force’s Accident Investigation Course.
It was during his time at “Pax River” that Vittori first had the opportunity to visit NASA and was initially disappointed that he was an Italian pilot, and not a U.S. citizen, for the path to the astronaut corps seemed barred. A little over two years later, in early 1998, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) issued a request for astronaut candidates, and in July Vittori and another of his countrymen—a former Italian Army special forces operative, engineer, parachutist, scuba and nitrox diver, named Paolo Nespoli—were selected and began training in August alongside NASA’s 17th group of shuttle pilots and mission specialists.
Following training and evaluation, Vittori worked in the shuttle operations, robotics, future vehicles, and ISS branches of the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, before assignment to his first space mission. In August 2001, he began preparations to serve as flight engineer aboard Soyuz TM-34, a 10-day mission to the space station, scheduled for April of the following year. During the years preceding the loss of Columbia, such “taxi” flights were designed to periodically replace the emergency return vehicles for long-duration expedition crews. The mission was also the final Soyuz-TM (“Transport-Modified”) spacecraft, which had first flown in mid-1986 and had been ferrying cosmonauts to Mir and the ISS since February 1987.
Vittori’s participation in the mission came about through a contract between Roscosmos, ASI, and the European Space Agency (ESA), and Soyuz TM-34 rocketed into orbit from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 25 April 2002. Interestingly, the launch occurred just 24 hours after Bomarzo celebrated its festival day, and had circumstances been different his third mission—STS-134, aboard the shuttle—might have launched at about the same period in April 2011. “In the small Italian cities,” Vittori explained, “there is a tradition … a special day, that is the festivity of the city, and that special day [for Bomarzo] is 24 April. That, obviously, keeps me very much linked to my origins.”
Joining Vittori aboard Soyuz TM-34 were Commander Yuri Gidzenko of Russia and the second fare-paying “space tourist,” South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, and the trio arrived at the ISS and docked at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Zarya module on 27 April, about two days after launch. They were greeted by the incumbent Expedition 4 crew of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Onufrienko and U.S. astronauts Carl Walz and Dan Bursch, who had been aboard the space station since December 2001. During their week together, the visitors completed several scientific investigations, and Gidzenko, Vittori, and Shuttleworth returned to Earth on 5 May aboard the older Soyuz TM-33 spacecraft, which had been docked to the ISS for more than six months. This left the “fresh” Soyuz TM-34 for emergency use by Onufrienko, Walz, and Bursch. Landing in Kazakhstan, Roberto Vittori’s first space mission lasted just three hours shy of 10 full days.
Upon his return to Earth, he initially supported the New Generation Space Vehicles Branch of the astronaut office at JSC and later worked as a “Tiger Team” investigator during the aftermath of the STS-107 disaster. During the lengthy post-Columbia downtime, two-man ISS “caretaker” crews were launched aboard Soyuz missions, every six months, with the third seat taken by an international astronaut or a fare-paying tourist. In October 2004, Vittori was named as the third-seater aboard Soyuz TMA-6, planned for April 2005 to deliver Expedition 11 crewmen Sergei Krikalev of Russia and NASA’s John Phillips to the station.
His second mission launched from Baikonur on 15 April 2005. At this stage, the shuttle program was almost ready to resume operations, and Soyuz TMA-6 docked at the Pirs module about two days into the flight. Boarding the ISS, Vittori became the first European astronaut to visit the station on two occasions, and—as part of Europe’s ENEIDE program—he performed experiments in upper-limb fatigue and germination of herbaceous plant seeds for possible space nutrition. Unlike Vittori’s first mission, his second benefited from the upgraded “TMA” variant of the Soyuz spacecraft, which boasted a “glass cockpit”—becoming the first expendable piloted vehicle to feature such technology—and other performance enhancements.
Another dissimilarity between his two flights was that on his second return to Earth Vittori was joined by two different comrades: the returning Expedition 10 crew of NASA’s Leroy Chiao and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov, who completed their own six-month voyage. The trio returned in Soyuz TMA-5—which had been docked at the ISS since October 2004—on the evening of 24 April, leaving the fresh Soyuz TMA-6 as an emergency crew return vehicle for Krikalev and Phillips. In completing his second mission, Vittori’s personal space-time tally expanded to more than 19 days in orbit.
Subsequent assignments saw him detached by ESA to the Italian Air Force between February 2006 and August 2008, during which time he also served on the board of ASI’s Technical Scientific Committee. Vittori also graduated from the NATO Defense College Senior Course and studied for, and received, a master’s degree in physics. In the summer of 2009, he was named as a mission specialist on STS-134, originally planned for July 2010 as the final voyage of Endeavour and the second-to-last flight of the shuttle program. Vittori was joined by Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Greg “Box” Johnson, and fellow mission specialists Mike Fincke, Drew Feustel, and Greg Chamitoff, and the crew were tasked with delivering the 12,000-pound (4,500-kg) AMS-2 and several other payloads to the ISS and executing up to four ambitious spacewalks.
Delays to the shuttle fleet in the fall of 2010 pushed STS-134 into the spring of the following year, and the much-publicized assassination attempt on Kelly’s wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in January 2011, obliged NASA to assign veteran astronaut Rick Sturckow as backup commander. Sturckow thus trained in tandem with the STS-134 crew, in the event that Kelly would be unable to make the flight. As circumstances transpired, Giffords recovered and was well enough to attend the launch. STS-134 eventually roared aloft from the Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Pad 39A on 16 May 2011.
The shuttle docked at the ISS two days later and the six astronauts were greeted by the incumbent Expedition 26 crew of Russian cosmonauts Dmitri Kondratyev, Andrei Borisenko, and Aleksandr Samokutyayev, U.S. astronauts Catherine “Cady” Coleman and Ron Garan, and Italy’s Paolo Nespoli. “We started, in fact, together, in ’98,” Vittori told the NASA interviewer of his long-standing friendship with fellow Italian Nespoli, “and between the two of us, every time there was a competition.” Whereas Vittori began his career on the Soyuz “side,” Nespoli’s first mission was aboard the shuttle, and with STS-134 the two had come full-circle. “That is unique,” said Vittori. “It’s a beautiful opportunity. We started together and we converge together on board of the station.”
It was another remarkable episode in the annals of Italy’s remarkable space adventure. The meeting of Nespoli and Vittori was not the first occasion that two Italians had been in orbit together, since the STS-75 shuttle mission in February 1996 featured Maurizio Cheli and Umberto Guidoni, but it was certainly the first occasion that two Italians had been aboard the ISS at the same time. Their achievements stood on the shoulders of Italy’s first man in space, Franco Malerba, who flew aboard shuttle mission STS-46 in July 1992, and has since been pressed yet further. Nespoli became the first Italian to embark on a long-duration mission, returning to Earth on 24 May 2011—midway through the STS-134 flight—after 159 days in orbit, whilst Luca Parmitano became the first Italian spacewalker in July 2013 and Samantha Cristoforetti will launch in November 2014 as Italy’s first woman in space.
In total, on STS-134, Endeavour spent 11 days, 17 hours, and 41 minutes—from 18-30 May—attached to the ISS, which marked the second-longest docked period of any shuttle mission at any space station, falling just an hour shy of the all-time record-holder, STS-123 in March 2008. During this period, the Express Logistics Carrier (ELC)-3 and the AMS-2 astrophysics instrument were robotically installed, with Vittori and Feustel manning the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm and Johnson and Chamitoff handling the station’s Canadarm2. Over the next several days, spacewalkers Fincke, Feustel, and Chamitoff supported four EVAs, during which they installed new experiments and equipment, hooked up a jumper to transfer ammonia to the P-6 array’s thermal control system, lubricated the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ) and one of the “hands” on Canada’s Dextre manipulator, and trialed the In-Suit Light Exercise (ISLE) protocol, which is now routinely used before all station-based spacewalks.
Following their undocking from the ISS, Endeavour’s crew returned to Earth on 1 June, concluding the 10th-longest shuttle mission in history, after 15 days, 17 hours, and 38 minutes. With more than 35 days of spaceflight experience, spread across his three missions, Roberto Vittori becomes one of only two Italians to have flown missions aboard both Soyuz and the shuttle. He also currently stands in third place, behind Paolo Nespoli’s cumulative 174 days and Luca Parmitano’s 166 days, on the list of most spaceflight-experienced Italians of all time. Looking to the future, his hopes are bright for space exploration. STS-134 took place in the 50th anniversary year of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight. “You look at the future with excitement,” he said, “because 50 years is nothing, and therefore if we try to judge how huge the progresses that we have done in the last 50 years and you project yourself to the next 50 years, I have three kids and I continue to motivate them to be involved in technology and space. That’s my future, their future and the future of humanity.”