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Luca Parmitano and the Dreams that Came True Beyond Their Limits

La Voce in an exclusive interview with Sicilian astronaut Luca Parmitano on the release of his book, "Volare"

Luca Parmitano (Photo Nasa)

He called his book "Volare", the same as the long-term space mission by the Italian Space Agency of the same name, and it is the story about the 166 days that Luca Parmitano -- an ESA astronaut and Lieutenant Colonel of the Air Force -- lived in space: "For me, the only way to evolve as human beings, to be a bit better tomorrow than what we are today, is to search for our limits in order to shift them – or exceed them"

Volare. For Sicilian astronaut Luca Parmitano, it’s an infinite conjugation of the celebrated verb pertaining to movement regarding the space walk, emotional anchors, launchpads, and future goals.

It is with the presentation of the new edition of his bestseller about the VOLARE mission, that the author, from Sicily, shifts the horizon of his story to that of the experiences that he lived in the orbiting station — a crossroads of thoughts and moods to be embraced — and to the results of his research conducted amongst the stars. Luca Parmitano, among the curious looks from followers that rushed to Catania from every corner of the island, and the reassuring ones from his mother and father — his first and eternal supporters: “Luca has always had a clear objective”, confides his mother, “From when he was a child he knew that he wanted to be an astronaut, and thanks to his very strong determination, he reached his goal”. For the readers of La Voce di New York, the story of exploration, reflection, of the discovery of man’s own frontier, and of the science that will take us into space, but with a new gaze on our world; of human relationships and the relationship with Planet Earth, of one’s own challenges and one’s own limits, the meaning of a dream, and personal fulfillment.

Good morning, Luca, and thank you for being here with us. Your life, your work…Do you have what you dreamt of as a child?

“Dreaming of becoming an astronaut was common among the children of my generation, but just like everyone else I thought my dreams were impossible to achieve.  In fact, while growing up I tried to understand what I would like to do, and I changed my idea many times. Then, as an adolescent, I thought about flying and becoming a pilot, which brought me to enlist in the Air Force and become pilot. In a way, the path that brought me to fulfilling my dream came by way of thousands of projects, big and small. But not for this that the sense of privilege has ever diminished”. 

Comfort zone. This intangible place where the predictability of events nurtures our personal security – it’s like a point of departure…to arrive where?

“To whatever other place, provided that it is outside the comfort zone. The more experience we have, the more this area will broaden, aiming to slow us down, to limit us to what we know, to our habits. To the point where we think that there isn’t anything else that can give us emotion, or for which is worth putting yourself out there. For me, the only way to evolve as human beings, to be a bit better tomorrow than what we are today, is to search out one’s own limits to try and shift them – or exceed them”.

Luca Parmitano (Photo ESA/ James Blair)

What distance does the future have from space?  What does one’s own weight gain or lose? Is relativism a way to live, or is it a paradoxical way to the absolute?

“It’s strange, but during my experience in orbit, I concentrated instead on the present. I was aware that time in orbit was limited, and that it did not belong to me, therefore I tried to live it to the fullest, moment by moment.  The future was a very precise date – that of re-entry – and I preferred to not think about it too much. This necessity, this strong desire to live each moment with awareness unfortunately did not become a part of me. Once I returned, I often let myself be taken in by the rhythm of everyday life, in which we take everything for granted. I have to force myself to remember how precious every instant is, tied to every emotion and each memory. In a certain sense, it is the opposite of relativism”.

How do you define your bond with Earth, meaning as a planet of the Solar System and with your land?

“I spoke of both and wrote about it in my blog while I was in orbit, because I wanted to be sure to capture my thoughts and my feelings at the source, before time could pollute memory and fade the colors.  I am for sure not the first astronaut to fall in love with this planet, but I am not sad to be a part of the choir: Earth from space is a magnificent splendor, and the love that we feel in seeing her is ancestral, primordial. Just like someone who sees the sea for the first time, and in hearing its sound, its scent, its color, understands that they have always loved the sea, even if they didn’t know it. And if Earth represents the world of men, and our desire to live in society, Sicily – my land – represents for me the tie to my family, with a path that formed and transformed me, that across obstacles and opportunity brought me to the present”. 

The training is rigorous, you’re far away from loved ones, the fear due to the uncertainty that everything will function in the right way. How do you overcome these and other anchors?

“The only anchor that I drag along without being able to free myself from the weight is being far away from loved ones. In particular, from my daughters, because they are of an age in which each moment is a different experience that changes them, making them grow, transforming them: and I lose many of these moments — too many — without being able to justify myself, neither with them, nor with myself.  Everything else is my work, but at the same time it is a part of me: the training is a challenge to better yourself, the knowledge is the transfiguration of the unknown and of fear”.

Those who walk in space are believed to be special, almost like wizards. If that far-away place is still today unreachable for the common man, in the case of an event – magnificent or catastrophic – which would you choose to advise Earthlings about?

“This is the first time that such a question is posed to me, and I’ve never paused to think about it. In fact, part of our work is observing the Earth, since thanks to the dome we have a unique view of Earth at 360 degrees. The great natural events (hurricanes, floods, eruptions, and the like) are difficult to predict, and scientists already do the best they can utilizing existing technology to limit uncertainty as much as possible. I prefer instead to show the destructive activities of man – for example, the arsons that destroy territory and life, or the never-ending blanket of smog in the more industrial areas of the planet – to pass along the message that we are responsible for that which is to come, from climate change to environmental pollution. And at the same time, I try to make people understand that a more splendid event does not exist (and, for that which we know, unique!) than that which is life”. 

“Sicily: an island of light, like a beacon for this traveler” (Photo ESA/NASA)

What horizons do you catch a glimpse of with regard to global economic policy in this particular historical moment? On which planet is Man?

“We are certainly still on Planet Earth. Well limited, I’d add. Notwithstanding my university degree in Political Science, I do not consider myself an expert on economic policy, therefore I prefer not to find myself writing trivialities. My publishing work consists rather in making it understood that a focused spatial politics (whether Italian, European, or Global) brings benefits beyond the immediate: space means exploration, yes, but with the support of science and technology. And science and technology improve the quality of life on Earth”.    

If you could choose an ideal space crew to send into orbit to reflect, who would it be comprised of? On which topics?

“Maybe we all need a stay in orbit to reflect”.

Luca Parmitano with Laura Riggio

Who is your hero?

“My heroes? All those who every day, with their heads bowed in silence, bring their own contribution to society, without demanding anything in return. I know a lot of them: doctors, engineers, scientists, soldiers, teachers, blue-collar workers, volunteers, mothers and fathers… the list is very long”.

Luca Parmitano with Laura Riggio

What do we know about exoplanets that are similar to Earth?

“I posed this question a few weeks ago to Professor Davide Gandolfi of the University of Turin, who is an expert on this subject, himself having discovered various exoplanets – and he is one of my dearest friends. At the moment, we know all that technology and human intelligence allows us to measure and infer. But maybe the most important thing for us terrestrial beings to have understood is that they exist, and that they aren’t even uncommon”.

Can you tell us something about the Mars mission?

“There isn’t one “Mars” mission that I know of, but many projects that point all in the same direction. The red planet is still the challenge to overcome, a mystery that, the more you study, the more it intensifies. It’s normal that our desire to one day travel there has been for unchanged for decades. That’s why missions like ExoMars by the European Space Agency (but with undisputed leadership by the Italian Space Agency) are so important: we haven’t yet developed the necessary technology to send human beings, but we can make great strides by first sending Rover and Landers, that can indicate to us where to go and when we’ll be ready”.

Tell us about the Intercultura project financed by the sale of your book, Volare?

“Intercultura is a non-profit organization that allows very young students at the high school level to go and study abroad in a school within the destination country. In 1993-1994, I was a scholarship recipient for the United States — an experience that even today, more than 20 years later, I remember with enthusiasm and with the awareness that it changed my life, opening doors and opportunities to me. The revenues from my book, Volare, have allowed one young student to go abroad for one year, and I hope that the second, updated edition of the book will be able to give the same opportunity to another deserving student”.

Volare Mission on Flickr


Translated by Emmelina De Feo

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