Italian astronaut and member of the European Astronaut Corps, who began his first mission on April 25, 2002 (and returned to Earth on May 5). The mission, named Marco Polo, took Vittori to the International Space Station (ISS), where he carried out experiments studying the effects of microgravity on medical phenomena such as blood pressure, brain functions and muscle behaviour. The primary aim of the mission, however, was to replace the Russian Soyuz craft that had been docked with the ISS with the new one that Vittori arrived in (there is always one Soyuz craft left docked to the station, acting as a kind of escape pod).

Although these were the official aims of the Marco Polo mission, they were largely ignored whilst it was in progress. Instead, all attention was focused on Mark Shuttleworth, the South African space tourist, who had managed to buy his way onto the Soyuz.

This is not to say that Shuttleworth did not deal with the mission in a professional manner. On the contrary, he completed the full training programme with his companions and worked very hard once up there in the ISS. His presence did, however, overshadow Vittori's mission a little, and at least one Italian astronaut's ego was bruised upon the return to Earth.

Despite being an astronaut, Vittori is not really known for his bravery. The Italian press pointed out (with a little glee, I suspect) that he was sweating and shaking before entering the Soyuz capsule. Then there was his refusal to comment on whether or not he was nervous about the mission during a web chat. And, when he was finally restored to solid ground, he berated the Soyuz capsule as uncomfortable and unsafe, and complained that the trip had not been all that he had hoped for. Given that his ISS experience was funded entirely by European tax payers, his comments provoked dark mutterings concerning ingratitude. The contrast with Shuttleworth, who returned somewhat shaken, but immensely happy and anxious to use his experiences to improve things here on Earth, was hard to ignore.

Vital statistics

Born: October 15, 1964, Viterbo, Italy.

Education: Italian Air Force Academy, 1989
Reese Air Force base, Texas, USA, 1990
US Navy Test Pilot School, 1995

Experience: Nearly 2000 hours in over 40 different aircraft.

Rank: Lieutenant Colonel, Italian Air Force.

Vittori worked for several years as a test pilot (which included testing the Eurofighter) until 1998. Then, in August 1998, he joined the European Astronaut Corps. He is now qualified to take part in missions aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle, as well as Russian Soyuz crafts.

This might not be the place for subjective character appraisals, but it will suffice to say that Roberto Vittori is, like many astronauts, a bit of a character. His profession requires him to have an uncompromising belief in himself and his abilities, and it is because he has this self-confidence that he has been so successful within his chosen career. For us mere mortals stuck on Earth, this can sometimes be a little much...

Feel free to /msg me if you wish to hear stories of misguided arrogance…