Italian Astronaut’s Mother Dies While He’s in Space

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An Italian astronaut living aboard the international space station since December had to miss his mother’s funeral because he will not return to Earth until late May.

The European Space Agency (ESA) on May 2 notified Paolo Nespoli during a private call to the space station that his mother, 78-year-old Maria Motta, had died that day in her hometown of Verano Brianza just outside Milan.

Motta’s funeral took place May 4 in Verano Brianza. Half an hour later, as the space station flew over Italy, the crew stopped work and observed a minute’s radio silence to honor her memory.

Nespoli will have plenty of support from Earth and space as he grieves, ESA officials said. He is currently in the final weeks of a six-month mission to the international space station and due to return home May 23 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “We all are in our minds very close to Paolo and his family, and try to give him sufficient strength in space to cope with this difficult situation and overcome this severe personal loss which is already very difficult in normal conditions, but for Paolo still being on the International Space Station it is even harder,” said Michel Tognini, former ESA astronaut and the head of the European Astronaut Center, in a statement.

“There are probably no words that could relieve this sadness but our thoughts are with Paolo, his family and friends,” Tognini said.

ESA’s director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, and the director for human spaceflight and operations, Thomas Reiter, also contacted Nespoli to express their condolences and the agency’s support.

Reiter attended the funeral on behalf of the agency, while fellow Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti delivered the condolences of the European Astronaut Corps.

To help Nespoli cope with his mother’s death, ESA’s flight director and support team modified his work schedule.

Astronauts who serve long-duration missions on the space station are given special briefings and training to help them prepare for being away for an extended period of time. This preparation includes topics such as family support and the potential deaths of friends or family.

Nespoli, like his other station crewmembers, has regular access to an Internet protocol phone to call his family, as well as email and other Internet communication tools.

NASA and space station mission control also will provide support to Nespoli as he copes with his loss.

“As an ESA astronaut, ESA will be the primary provider of psychological support for Paolo,” said NASA spokeswoman Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters. “However, Mission Control and NASA flight surgeons and support team are certainly available to assist as needed.”