Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti: NASA Lunar Gateway Is 'Natural Next Step in Exploration'

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European Space Agency (ESA) Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti takes part in a preflight training session at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, outside Moscow, on December 10, 2013. AFP/Getty Images

NASA is getting ready to put human feet on the moon for the first time since 1972. The agency—along with partners such as Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA)—wants to launch the first chunk of a lunar-orbiting space station by 2022.

The project's advocates hope it will serve as a base for trips to the lunar surface and, eventually, to Mars. But the ambitious undertaking—known variously as Deep Space Gateway, Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and simply Gateway—has attracted its fair share of controversy.

Critics have said it's unnecessary and even dangerous. But supporters argue it's a crucial step for human space exploration. And for a government obsessed with asserting America's "greatness," the prospect of returning to the moon is a powerful political pawn.

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is a crew representative on Gateway. The first Italian woman in space, the former fighter pilot spent almost 200 days on the International Space Station (ISS) from 2014 to 2015—a record spaceflight for an ESA astronaut.

As well as investigating how fruit flies, flatworms and even human cells behave in space, Cristoforetti gained fame for brewing the first espresso on the ISS.

Since her return to Earth, she's approached her career with both feet on the ground, switching from space traveler to manager with a role at the European Astronaut Centre. She recently spoke to Newsweek about the challenges facing Gateway and what it's like to transfer from the highest lab in existence to an office firmly on the ground.

(Newsweek's interview with Cristoforetti has been condensed for length.)

How does your work here on Earth compare with your work as an astronaut? Do you miss space?
I'm not somebody who tends to miss things. If they told me tomorrow that I can go to space again then of course I'd be happy to give up what I'm doing now and start training. But it doesn't mean that I get up in the morning and I'm like, I miss it. That's not the attitude I have.

I'm fortunate that I've had really interesting tasks since I've been back. Very challenging. It's things that I never did, you know—managing a team, managing a project, managing budgets. These very mundane things that many of us do but I had no experience with.

In the environment I come from—military flying or spaceflight—they train you very well. You're supertrained to do those tasks without mistakes. But when you're thrown into an organization environment and you have to manage people you don't get very specific training—but you still need to know what the answer is, or what you have to do. It's very much a different challenge. For me it's probably a bigger challenge, I would say.

What is your role with the Gateway?
I'm a crew representative for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway project. It's a space station that will be built around the moon in the early 2020s. For human spaceflight, you always want astronauts involved so that they can give a little bit of perspective to the future crew members, users and operators. I'm just starting that, I'm just getting myself into the topic.

What are the project's main goals?
You can look at it from multiple points of view. It's meant as a base around the moon from which you can flexibly perform a number of missions. You can do science onboard, of course, and you can observe the environment around the moon.

It's a little bit of an intermediary—the next step in exploration. You can use it as a base for missions to the moon surface—both robotic and eventually human missions. One day it will serve as a starting point for missions further out to Mars, but that's not going to happen in the next 10 years or anything.

It's a natural next step in exploration, and it will enable a number of developments.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges for the project?
We are used to a space station being very large—we have the luxury of a lot of mass and volume in the ISS because it's not so far away and it's been built over many years. Gateway is going to have to be built with a more—let's say—efficient approach. It's a lot more difficult and expensive to launch things to lunar orbit than a low Earth orbit, so we're gonna have to make much more efficient use of the space available.

At the same time, however, you need things like radiation protection. You don't need this so much on the ISS as it's within the Van Allen belt, and it's actually protected from cosmic rays and violent solar events. The environment is a lot more dangerous out there for Gateway. It's going to be challenging from an engineering point of view to make sure that we do a lot more with less mass and less volume and less power. But you know, technology has evolved since we started traveling to the ISS.

Eventually we would like to test closed-loop life support systems so we can use them for Mars. It will be used to test robust technologies for life support. We don't know the future. We don't have this right now. What we do have is not robust enough to use on Mars missions.

These are our biggest challenges—and there will be many more I'm sure.

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