INTERVIEW: Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli: 'The sky is no limit'
Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 14 May 2019
Nespoli’s story, as he told it to Ahram Online, is one 'of fascination and determination; of hope that is stopped at no limits, and of chasing one’s dreams way beyond the skies above'

He was mesmerised with TV images of the first man walking on the moon and he became an astronaut. He liked the view the Giza Pyramids from outer space and he came to have his picture taken with them.

He is Italian astronaut Paolo Angelo Nespoli, who was born in a small Italian village in April 1957, “where it would have seemed impossible for the son of an ordinary family to make it to become an astronaut.”

Nespoli’s story, as he told it to Ahram Online, is one “of fascination and determination; of hope that is stopped at no limits, and of chasing one’s dreams way beyond the skies above.”

“This was how I came to realise my childhood dream to become an astronaut, and how I came to Egypt to fulfill a top wish on my bucket list of seeing the Pyramids in real life, and they are as magnificent from nearby just as they are stunning from afar,” he said.

Nespoli spoke during a visit earlier in April to Cairo to take part in an exhibition that the Italian Embassy in Cairo organised to display pictures taken from a constellation of satellites.

“This constellation is there to take pictures and acquire data for the Mediterranean Basin. These pictures should be able to help the countries of the Mediterranean explore their resources and their potentials to deal with all sorts of problems, ranging from high levels of pollution to a shortage in water resources,” Nespoli said.

In addition to taking part in the event that was widely attended by members of the science community in Egypt, Nespoli gave a lecture to a group of university students, essentially of science disciplines.

The objective of the talk, he said, was not just to reflect on matters of science, but also to talk about matters of life.

“When I think about it today, as I am retiring from the European Space Agency as an astronaut and engineer, I think of the path that I had walked since that day when I was watching on TV pictures of the landing of the first man on the moon, back in July 1969, until my first trip to outer space as an astronautin 2007. I would say that it has been quite a path,” Nespoli said.

Being in no financial position to attend university after finishing high school in the l970s, Nespoli went for what was then obligatory military service. Having finished his service, he chose to stay on with the army and join the Special Forces, where he made a successful career.

“I was really doing well, professionally and financially. However, It was in the 1980s that I thought I wanted to go back to my childhood dreams that I had put aside but never really abandoned,” Nespoli recalled.

This meant he needed to study English and to join university in the US. “I did it; it was not easy but I did it, and in 1989 I was ready to apply to join the space agency,” he said.

It was not easy again, because demand was high and there were only two openings. Nespoli assumed an engineer’s job until he finally was admitted in as an astronaut, “only when I was 40.”

“We go to space because we want to make life better for people on earth; because in the space we can learn better about earth and we can try to see our land from afar and see its potentials and its problems. It is part of our nature to pursue knowledge and to learn more and more,” Nespoli said.

During his path as an astronaut, Nespoli had often thought that it would not have been possible for him to be there without “having faith.” He also thought that “for the universe our land is simply a grain of sand in a huge desert.”

“But what is most significant for me from my time in outer space is that, in the end, our land is for all of us. This is what you see when you look at it from space. When we are here, we think of countries and continents. But from above we realise that this land is for all of us, and it is for all of us to work together make it a better place. Because it cannot be good for some and not for all – not for long anyway,” Nespoli said.

During his visit to Cairo, Nespoli underlined the need for “continued scientific cooperation between Egypt, that has a space agency in the initial phases, and Italy, that has considerable experience to share.”