Every year since 2005, ISAA association (Italian Space and Astronautics Association) is organizing a 3-days convention, devoted to spread space exploration awareness, and giving the opportunity to many Italian space enthusiasts to speak about their resarches on the same topic. The first three editions were held in Montecatini Terme, Tuscany, but the last one has been moved in Lecco, Lombardy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lecco), that is also my hometown. Lecco is, my dear US friends, settled on the same lake, Lago di Como, choosen by George Lucas for many shots of his “Star Wars Episode II” film, and by George Clooney as a pleasant place for one of his magnificent Villas. Here you can finde more info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Como.

It is also a tradition of our Convention to host great personalities in space world, and let them have public speeches to share their experiences and anecdotes. In past editions we’ve hosted Paolo Bellutta, an Italian JPL employee part of the MER’s “rover drivers” team, and astronaut Umberto Guidoni (STS-75 and 100), the first European to enter the ISS.

This time, from 19th to 22nd November, we had the pleasure to host NASA Astronaut Col. Michael E. Fincke (Exp 9 Engineer and Exp 18 Commander). His presence among us was the result of a lucky series of coincidences, that I want to briefely tell you.

In march 2008 our association helped, with others, a local school to arrange an ARISS radio contact with Expedition 18, onboard the International Space Station. The reaction of teachers and studenrts was overwhelming, and local political authorities were very impressed. After a long year spent preparing the contact, tears were in our eyes when we heard loud and clear the voice of Mike calling for us. I know, it may sound weired, but I assure you it’s a very emotional moment after monthes of classes and technical preparation with students.

Immediately after the contact, that went extremely well, I and some friends of mine thought how it would be awesome if in some way we could manage to obtain a real, face to face contact between the astronaut and the students who have spoken with him by radio.  ”Let’s do it, at least we cannot say we didn’t tried”. We were everyting but sure that a NASA astronaut would accept our invitation. Nevertheless we submitted our request, and after about 40 days NASA contacted us saying… YES! We were speechless. What should we do to properly welcome among us such a great guest? You see, maybe for many of you U.S. friends, NASA astronauts are in some way “ordinary”, but try to look through our eyes. NASA is such a myth everywhere, it’s like your favourite rockstar coming for a concert in your small, unknown less-than-1000-souls village. Just unbeliveable.

We started to work hard with local authorities (Province and Municipality of Lecco), and with the local group of astro amateurs, the “Deep Space” Association, to arrange the best accomodations and to plan a schedule for Mike’s public speeches.

Every time we had meetings with local institutions (Municipality, Province, Engeneering Faculty at Politecnico di Milano, Brera’s Observatory) we received requests of public speeches. So we had no choiche than arrange a really tight schedule, even if we were also extremely pleased because of the enthusiasm and curiosity that were raising in the town.

All the planning phase went smoothly (sort of, NASA burocracy is heaven compared to the Italian one) and finally, on 18th November, I with my friends Loris and Gianpietro were at the Malpensa International Airport of Milan, picking up our very first NASA astronaut.

His first words let us very impressed: “I look forward to meet the students. Being here is like a dream becoming true”. His dream? “What a coincidence, Mike, you are making our dream true”, we thought.

I studied every detail of Mike’s bio (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Fincke). He accomplished so many things that I was expecting someone that could be a little “snooty”. Forget it. Mike was one of the humblest people I’ve ever met. He proved to be largely superior to my expectations, especially in human terms.

His personality is characterized by an enthusiasm matched only by his humility, and that, above all his accomplishments, has literally conquered all the people he met.

Mike spoke to over 1000 people in 3 different locations in 3 days, and he never spared himself. He *always* had a kind answer, an handshake and a wide smile for everyone. To tell you the truth, my personal opinion is that perhaps, at some point, he regretted the loneliness of the International Space Station. Of course we did our best to reward him with super rich Italian lunches and dinners, and I think he enjoyed them… a lot ;)

The most challenging part of all the Convention was the evening of Saturday 21st. The Major of Lecco reserved the city theater for us. That was amazing, since the “Teatro della Società” theater is ancient and beautiful (http://is.gd/5jgxP), and we were proud to offer it to Micke’s speech. In the same time we were also really frightened: the location is the most prestigious theater of the entire Province, and fill up its 450 empty seats seemed an impossible mission to us. All the delegations of students, all the highest rank politicians were invidted that very night. Everything had to work perfectly: PCs, video projector, our trembling knees (I was among the hosts – http://is.gd/5jgFq )…

Then, while we were in the backstage, Mike asked for a moment of loneliness. Maybe he was praying, maybe he was just gathering all his energies, but in the meantime the entry gates were opened and a huge, pushing crowd started to flow in. One hundred, two hundred… in 20 minutes the theater was filled up to his very top row of seats, and more than 50 people was left outside. As we say, SOLD OUT. We peeked over the curtains and the view was… well, incredible (http://is.gd/5jgI6). Mike was still alone, concentrating in his dressing room and waiting for us to call him on the stage. He did not have any chanche to peek the audience. So when we called him I can only imagine the emtional impact he had, finding himself in front of a overcrowded theater, that literally exploded in a thunderous applause (http://is.gd/5jgMU). We were so happy for us, but expecially for Mike. It was a very special moment.

His incredible magnetic personality conquered the audience in few minutes. We’ve prepared few surprise for him to “break the ice”, like a video of the Star Trek Enterprise’s episode in wich he had a cameo. Everything contributed to make him closer to te attendance.

Then, after his entertaining speech and video commentary, as asked at the airport Mike finally met all the students involved in the radio contact. That was another very touching moment. The students greeted Mike one by one, then they gave him a nice present. Right after that, few words were said by the teacher, Prof. Lafranconi, who struggled to make his students involved in the radio contact’s project. (God knows how many of those professors we need here in Italy). One of the things that delighted us more was the presence of delegations from two other Italian cities, wich have had the same kind of radio contact Mike: Pietrasanta (in Tuscany, 380 Km from Lecco) and Porto San Elpidio (in Marche, 590 km from Lecco). I think that such a meeting was quite an unique experience for a NASA Astronaut, and for sure it’s been something very special for the students, the teachers, and for all the people who worked hard to share few minutes of radio contact with Mike.

I want to stress how important are PRs for promoting space exploration awareness. I’ve seen with my own eyes how initiatives like ARISS School Contacts, expecially if followed by the presence of a real astronaut, can lit up the fire of passion for space, and create memories wich maybe will become important in the future, when the kids of today will be called to decide what to do with their own lives.

Mike has left us all and hundreds of “Lecchesi” (citizens of Lecco) with indelible memories. In those three days he was the public face of NASA for the Italians, and he did a GREAT job. As I said, he’s been always patient and flattering kind. Sunday Nov. 22nd he spent his last day with us at the local Planetarium. There were so many people that he had to replay and comment his video onboard the ISS for 3 times. After that he signed more than 400 autographs, each single one of them with a custom sentence. And for every signing there were a photo, each single one of them with a bright smile. Can you imagine the happiness of the dozens of childs who gathered there to meet him in person? They were awed and elated, as he always showed with blue flight suit filled with cool patches.

Such a dedicated behaviour by foreign astronaut, coming from a foreign space agency, was also an indirect lesson to our own space agencies. Despite the efforts of many ESA (European Space Agency) offices, who are very supportive for space-related initiatives, they’re not yet capable to create an extensive awareness campaign. Sometimes even the copyright disclaimers of ESA images and video prevent a free sharing of cool space materials. Anyway I want to stress that, if asked, ESA offers (and offered us) great contribution, and we look forward to collaborate once again in the future editions of our conventions.

I am sorry to admit that we were totally ignored by our very Italian Space Agency, ASI. ASI is a very strong and respected NASA partner, they do great job in the context of space missions and international collaboration. But in my view it’s just half of the job. ASI’s PR and space awareness offices are nonexistent. Despite we informed them about the presence of Col. Fincke, and required their help and PR materials, we obtained a “deafening silence”. No letter, no phonecalls, no noting came from there. So no surprises if in Italy the acronym ASI is well known just to insiders. Of course it’s easier organize space events for few dozens of key top level managers of aerospace firms, like ASI does very often in Rome, but the average Italian taxpayer is unaware that his country has a Space Agency. Unfortunately ASI is not spending efforts to make Ialians understand why is important to invest tax money in fields, like astronautics, that not always return immediate results. The Agency’s website is poor in multimedia content and boring. Even online there’s not an easy way to answer one of the most asked question about space exploration: “Why spend all those money to put an Italian into space?”

Let’s hope things will be better in the future, since we have two incoming missions for Italian astronauts: Roberto Vittori on STS-134 and Paolo Nespoli on Exp 26/27. Paolo will be the first Italian assigned to a long duration mission onboard the ISS. We are proud of them both!

Let’s close our storytelling. Sunday’s evening we were all exausted, and in a very poetic moment, as a “farewell”, while we were pakcing our car with Mike’s luggage the ISS flew over Lecco’s Planetarium (http://is.gd/5jihb). Mike’s wife, Ranita, was waiting for him in Milan, and after all the gift and touching moments we’ve had together, it was just time to finally bring him back to his wife. He looked very very tired (even if he never complained about anything, and if you ask him, he’ll deny) but we’re sure Ranita took good care of him.

This is the end of our story. I hope that even in my poor and twisted english I was able to share with you the emotions that Mike Fincke gifted us with his presence. You U.S. friends have to be proud of him an also proud of your space agency. You guys rock!