HOUSTON – Italian President Giorgio Napolitano made a special call this morning to the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, where two Italian spaceflyers are currently orbiting 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth.
Napolitano spoke with Italian astronauts Paolo Nespoli and Roberto Vittori in a special call to the station that was arranged by the European and Italian space agencies. It's the first time two Italian astronauts have been in space together. [Stunning Space Photos from Paolo Nespoli]
The Italian president's call came just two days after a separate and unprecedented event from Italy: Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the space station and shuttle Endeavour crews in a live video call from The Vatican on Saturday (May 21). [Video: Pope Talks to Astronauts in Space]
Vittori arrived at the space station last week with the rest of the space shuttle Endeavour's crew. He is midway through a 16-day shuttle mission in what will be the final flight of Endeavour.
Nespoli launched to the International Space Station in December, and has spent about five months living and working on the orbiting outpost. Nespoli is scheduled to return to Earth in a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft later today (May 23), and spoke to Napolitano during his final hours on the station.
"Mr. Nespoli, we'll see you in Italy," Napolitano told the departing astronaut.
Vittori and Nespoli unfolded a large Italian flag that will be brought back to Earth onboard the Soyuz. Napolitano gave Vittori the flag prior to his launch on Endeavour to mark the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification. [Photos: Shuttle Endeavour's Final Mission - Part 2]
As Nespoli and Vittori held the flag, they spoke about maintaining their country's heritage and strong traditions.
"We're very lucky as a country to have a strong historical identity," Nespoli said in his native Italian. "We must continue with that – continue in the future for technology, science, research and education. We're the country of poets, travelers and discoverers, and we must continue to do these things, and these are the things that make us grow."
Nespoli will depart from the space station tonight with two crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. The spaceflying trio is expected to land on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia at 10:26 p.m. EDT (0226 Tuesday GMT).