PARIS AIR SHOW: Italian woman astronaut to fly soon says space agency

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Samantha Cristoforetti could be the first of the European Space Agency's new six astronauts to fly, reaching the International Space Station by 2014.

Cristoforetti, an Italian, was selected along with her air force colleague Luca Parmitano, and a German, a Dane, a Frenchman and a Briton in May for the new intake of ESA astronauts.

They will all undergo 18 months of basic training starting in September and ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain has said that the earliest they could fly is in 3.5 years, which would be in 2013.

Because of Italy's twin-track contribution to the ISS through its ESA involvement and its bilateral relationship with NASA, the agency has as many flight opportunities between now and 2020 as its European counterpart and as such expected to have two astronauts selected.

Italian space agency commissioner Enrico Saggese tells Flight that for the public perception of astronauts equal oppourtunities was important and that, "we are quite happy with the result [of the astronaut selection]. We are looking forward as soon as possible to the opportunity to flying Cristoforetti. It [sending women] has a stronger emotional impact on the public".

ESA has now had three classes of astronauts, with the first woman, Belgian Marianne Merchez, having been selected in 1992. Merchez never flew and eventually resigned from the corps.

Italy already has two astronauts in ESA's corps, Paolo Nespoli and Roberto Vittori. Saggese explains that if they have individually accumulated two or more spaceflights and are over 55 years of age by the time Cristoforetti and Parmitano are ready to fly then Nespoli and Vittori are likely to face retirement.