The Italian Almanac

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Samantha Cristoforetti

First Astronaut Woman

Italy got its first woman astronaut when a 32-year-old Italian Air Force pilot became the European Space Agency`s first female pick. Samantha Cristoforetti, 32, an air force lieutenant with an engineering degree and a passion for scuba diving, was among the six new members of ESA`s astronaut team.

``It`s hard to say what I`m feeling, even in Italian,`` said Cristoforetti, who speaks several languages. ``Space flight has always fascinated me,`` she told a packed press conference in Paris. ``I feel lucky to be here,`` she added, thanking all those who supported her through a final year of gruelling training.``I think we`re going to be a good team,`` Cristoforetti said of the ESA flight force whose numbers have been boosted from ten to 16.

The final selection from thousands of aspiring space cadets was announced by ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and personnel chief Simonetta Di Pippo. A Milan native, Cristoforetti attended scientific lycee` in Trento before getting a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Munich. She graduated from Italy`s Aeronautical Academy in 2005. Cristoforetti speaks fluent German, English and French and has a good working knowledge of Russian. As well as scuba diving, she lists her hobbies as reading, yoga, swimming, skiing, mountain biking and caving.

The six new astronauts were selected from some initial 9,000 applicants from ESA`s 17 member nations. ESA launched its recruitment drive last year, its biggest since 1992, to boost the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in light of new projects, especially at the International Space Station (ISS). Two of ECA`s team are already Italian, Roberto Vittori and Paolo Nespoli, who are both set for more spells aboard the ISS in the near future.