Italian Samantha Cristoforetti became the first European woman to take command of the International Space Station.
Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti on Wednesday became the first European woman to take command of the International Space Station in a ceremony broadcast live from space.
The outgoing commander, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev, took the opportunity to make what appears to be a rare space-based reference to the war in Ukraine, saying that “despite the storms on Earth, our international cooperation continues”.
In a relaxed ceremony, Artemyev handed Cristoforetti a golden key, symbolizing her as the new commander of the space station until she returns to Earth on October 10.
Cristoforetti, a 45-year-old astronaut with the European Space Agency and former pilot of the Italian Air Force, arrived in April for her second tour of the ISS.
She holds the record for the longest stay in space by a woman after spending 199 days in orbit in 2014 and 2015.
She is the fifth woman — and the first non-American woman — to become commander since the role was created in 2000.
The space station, long a symbol of closer post-Cold War ties between Russia and the United States, has been in a difficult position since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February.
Moscow responded with outrage over unprecedented sanctions over the war, and the ISS is one of the last remaining areas of cooperation between Russia and the West.
– The echoes of the war in space –
Artemyev praised the work of all 10 people aboard the space station – four Americans, five Russians and Cristoforetti.
He said he saw the ISS as “a continuation of the Apollo-Soyuz program,” the first manned international space mission conducted jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1975, in the midst of the Cold War.
That was a time “when the relationship between the countries was also not easy, when there were people who found the way that leads to peace, and the way war ends everywhere,” Artemyev said, without naming Ukraine.
Cristoforetti, for her part, praised the work of her fellow crews, saying they are all “a small part of the giant team on the ground” that manages the space station’s operations.
The commander is responsible for all tasks performed by the crew members aboard the space station, which orbits more than 400 kilometers (248 miles) above the Earth.
During a calamity, the commander has the authority to make decisions without waiting for instructions from the ground control.
In the event of fire, depressurization or the detection of a toxic atmosphere – the three defined emergency scenarios – it is up to the commander to ensure that the lives of the crew are saved first.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who has served as the ISS commander, said last year that it is “like being on a boat – there is only a master on board after God”.
Commander decisions are made jointly by the five space agencies involved in the station: NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, Europe’s ESA, Canada’s CSA and Japan’s JAXA.