Space, superstitions and one love story

On the launch pad and ready to go, the Soyuz TMA-20 rocket now waits for its crew, which is set to head for the heavens later today.

When it comes to space travel, clinical accuracy and pinpoint engineering are the norm.

But these are not Sasha Nespoli’s main concerns.

She is the wife of European Space Agency astronaut Paulo Nespoli – and she nervously watches the Soyuz rocket that her husband’s safety depends on.

“I’m absolutely sure that things will be fine and I am really glad to see the vehicle that will take him to the ISS,” Sasha Nespoli says.

This is a family with space exploration running through their veins.

The couple met while Paulo was training near Moscow. Sasha was a nurse at the space center, and her father is a cosmonaut instructor.

“I met my wife in the Star City actually, during training some years ago and we figured out that, though our cultures were fairly different – she is Russian and I am Italian – there were a lot of things in common,” Paulo Nespoli says. ”Today we have a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and we are very happy.”

Paulo married his Russian bride while she was visiting him in Houston – a spur of the moment decision after the couple realized they could not stand being apart from one another.

The Italian will spend the next six months on board the ISS. But Paulo will be able to stay in touch with Sasha and their young daughter through phone calls and video links.

Standing at one meter 92, Nespoli will be the tallest man ever to fly in a Soyuz rocket. So tall in fact, that a special seat had to be made for him.

The Mission Commander is Cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev. This is going to be this Russian’s first journey into space.

A very serious and focused individual, he plans to use any down time on board the ISS to train for his black-belt in karate – not an easy task without gravity’s help.

“I’ll be restricted, of course. I won’t be doing any fully-fledged sessions,” he says. “There are a lot of exercises in karate, static ones, breathing exercises. They can be done in confined space in low gravity.”

NASA’s Catherine Coleman makes up the crew. This will be her third trip into space, and this time, she will be bringing along a passenger as a reminder of home – her son’s cuddly tiger.

Taking good luck tokens into orbit is one of many traditions associated with launches from Baikonur. Strange that even in the most high-tech of environments, the human belief in fate plays such a major part.