By Kimberly Mitchell
As a child growing up in Italy, Giulia Bassani never thought about becoming an astronaut or having anything to do with space. On November 23, 2014, Captain Samantha Cristoforetti launched into space. The former Italian Air Force pilot and current European Space Agency astronaut was the first Italian woman in space. She set a record for the longest single space flight by a woman at 199 days, 16 hours. Suddenly, Giulia Bassani was paying attention.
Bassani was 15 years old at the time, still in high school, and struggling with math, physics and chemistry. When Cristoforetti arrived at the International Space Station, Bassani was hooked. “Thanks to her, I discovered this whole world, aerospace engineering and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s basically building spaceships and rockets and airplanes and I thought, how cool is that? Let’s go do that.’” It didn’t make math any easier, but once Bassani found her inspiration and goal, everything changed. “In the moment when I found my path and I decided I was going to aerospace engineering and be an astronaut, that is when I overcame my difficulties, working hard to overcome that.”
Bassani began learning as much as possible about space and aerospace engineering. In 2015, she attended the ESO Astronomy Camp at the Observatory of Saint Barthélemy. In 2016, she entered the Odysseus Space Contest, a space competition for high school students sponsored by the European Space Agency. Bassani designed a Mars base for the contest. “When I started it, I actually didn’t know anything about Mars and I started learning everything from zero. The first draft of the project was really horrible,” she recounted in a recent podcast with SNN. Bassani consulted with experts and continued to study Mars and refine her project. She won the Italian competition and took her Mars base project to the competition finals in Belgium, where she presented it in front of an international panel of experts. The autonomous Mars base project earned her semi-final accolades.
@astro_giulia on Instagram
When the competition ended, Bassani was 18 years old. She enrolled in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. Her studies continued to challenge her. In fact, she didn’t pass a single exam her first year. “That was a very difficult period. I was very close to dropping out. The only thing that kept me pushing forward was my dream and my goal. I had decided I was going to do that, and I was. Eventually I got to the same level as my classmates and passed my exams. Now I’m about to get my degree.” The struggle Bassani faced turned into a TEDx talk, which she gave in March of this year. The talk is in Italian, but should be subtitled in English soon.
@astro_giulia on Instagram
As Bassani neared the completion of her degree, she started looking for other opportunities to be involved in space. One of those is the Moon Village Association. Created in Vienna in 2017, the MVA seeks to foster the formation of an international village on the moon and facilitate communication between all interested parties, whether governments, private companies or academia. Bassani was the MVA national coordinator in Italy for over a year but later focused on several other research projects involving Mars. The first involves how to protect future astronauts on Mars from harmful cosmic radiation. “Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field like here on earth so there is a problem with cosmic radiation so it is important to find a good radiation shielding solution.”
Her second research project considers sustainability on a possible Mars mission. Her team is examining how to make technology more effective with fewer costs and not wasting resources while on the Martian surface. “Let’s not go to Mars and harm the planet in any way,” she says. Sustainability is a tricky concept, though. Sometimes in the pursuit of sustainability, costs can skyrocket. “We’re going to write a paper with recommendations for a future mission. We will have to find a compromise. It can become even more expensive than we want it to be.” The research will help future missions look at being as sustainable as possible while keeping costs reasonable.
One of the possibilities that excites Bassani about preparing for missions to Mars is the future benefit of technology to those of us on earth. “It’s a bit like it’s been with the Apollo missions, with all the benefits we’ve had from those missions. We weren’t even imagining that we would have such technological returns. We can’t really predict now what we’re going to have from those missions.” Still, Bassani is confident we will see benefits as we advance towards a Mars mission.
As Bassani looks towards graduation, she understands her path to becoming an astronaut is still beginning. “It’s important for me to have experience within my field. I decided to focus on systems engineering. These are the people who know everything about a machine and how it works. If I am an astronaut on a mission and a failure occurs, if I know everything about the machine, I might be able to fix it.” Bassani is looking at her options both within Italy and outside, with an eye towards NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a path several of her classmates have taken. For now, she continues to focus on her studies. “I like to say that I probably know more about Mars than is socially acceptable for a 21 year old.”
@astro_giulia on Instagram
As if becoming an expert on Mars isn’t enough, Bassani loves to write. She has published two books already. The first, Ad Martem 12, uses the knowledge she gained while creating her Mars base project. The story revolves around the first three humans born on Mars. The second book, Kalopsia, is more dystopian in nature, following the journey of an 18 year old forced into training for war as part of 500 youth who are recruited each year by military forces. Bassani’s penchant for writing doesn’t show signs of slowing down. She’s collaborating with a publisher to highlight her journey into the field of study. She also anticipates writing a space saga and a collection of short stories centered around a question she posed to her Instagram followers about their favorite cosmic object.
Recently, Bassani took a flight on a Piper airplane. She hopes to soon get her pilot’s license. While looking down on the places she traverses every day, she felt a shift in perspective. “You realize how small everything is and you appreciate it.” Imagine looking down on the earth from space. For Giulia Bassani, this isn’t just a dream. It’s her goal. Perhaps she will be the first Italian astronaut on Mars.