Once a physicist: Umberto Guidoni
Umberto Guidoni is a former astronaut and a member of the European Parliament, belonging to the Party of Italian Communists.
How did you first become interested in physics?
As a teenager I was given a small telescope. It was only a toy but with it I could see the rings of Saturn. I was fascinated and decided I wanted to study space.
Where did you study physics and what did you do after graduating?
I graduated with a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Rome in 1978. I then won a fellowship to do research on nuclear fusion at Italy’s National Agency for Alternative Energy (ENEA) in Frascati south of Rome, and in 1983 I transferred to work on photovoltaic cells at another ENEA site. If I were starting out again today, I might well have stuck with energy, but at the time I wanted to study space. The following year I got a job at the Institute of the Physics of Interplanetary Space, also at Frascati.
How did you then become an astronaut?
I had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut but I realized that it would be difficult because I wasn’t from the US or the Soviet Union. However, an opportunity presented itself towards the end of the 1980s when Italy started co-operating with the US in space exploration. At Frascati I was involved in studying the Earth’s ionosphere using satellites and took part in a project to fly a spacecraft tethered to the Space Shuttle. I was then one of two Italians selected by NASA to be “payload specialists” — essentially scientist-astronauts — for this mission. When the mission initially launched in 1992 I was the reserve, but fortunately (for me), there was a technical problem while trying to deploy the tether. The flight was relaunched in 1996 and I was on board. I then became a fully fledged astronaut, training at NASA for almost five years before flying to the International Space Station in 2001.
What is it like being in space?
You have to be able to carry out a wide range of different tasks, such as fixing electronics and looking after your body, and you have to be able to deal with whatever comes your way. Normal activities such as sleeping and going to the bathroom become pretty involved in space because of weightlessness.
How did you get into politics?
I was still an active astronaut until 2004, but after NASA decided to close the Shuttle programme by 2010 it meant I probably wouldn’t fly again and so I decided that it was time to move on. While based at the European Space Agency’s ESTEC centre in the Netherlands, I visited Brussels a couple of times, where I saw how the European Parliament worked.
I have always been interested in politics, and with science-based issues — such as space, climate change and energy — becoming increasingly important politically, I decided to run in the European elections in 2004 and was successful.
Have you enjoyed your time as a politician?
Overall, yes. It can be frustrating when you do so much work and the European Council then decides not to go ahead with whatever you’ve proposed, but it is rewarding to see Europe taking shape. I would like to move towards a real federal state, with the Council disappearing and less power in the hands of the member states. It is frustrating that federalism isn’t happening more quickly, but if you go ahead too fast, people won’t follow.
Do you keep up with developments in science?
Yes. I don’t read scientific journals any more because they are so specialized, but I follow developments in fields like cosmology via more popular articles. As a politician I try to give young people a sense of the beauty in science, which is easier to do using astronomy and cosmology than, say, particle physics.
This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Physics World
last edited: March 28, 2014