Italian space station astronaut's mother dies

European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli works in the U.S. Destiny laboratory module aboard the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA TV)
"European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, four-and-a-half months into a long-duration stay aboard the International Space Station, is mourning the death of his mother in Italy, officials said Tuesday. His mother, Maria Motta, 78, died late Monday in the town of Verano Brianza near Milan, according to The Associated Press.

A NASA spokeswoman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston confirmed the death, but provided no other details. Like all astronauts launched to the station, Nespoli told flight controllers before launch how he wished to be contacted in the event of a family emergency.

"The flight control team is very flexible to whatever he requests," the spokeswoman said. "Certainly, if he wanted to add video conferences (with family members) they would make that available."

Station astronauts also have access to an internet telephone for personal calls as well as email. But in this case, the European Space Agency is responsible for providing psychological support as needed and the crew members "are prepared for things that might come up."

The Associated Press reported that Nespoli's wife and daughter were with other family members at his mother's bedside when she died after an illness. She is survived by Nespoli and two other children. Nespoli's father, the AP reported, died in 2007.

"Even if he was prepared for this possibility -- he knew about his mother's health problems -- it is painful not to be able to be near her at the last moments," Verano Brianza Mayor Renato Casati told the AP.

In Dec. 2007, station astronaut Dan Tani's 90-year-old mother was killed when her car was struck by a train.

Because of the high cost of manned space flight, schedule requirements and the tightly choreographed nature of life aboard the International Space Station, crew members are not able depart early even in the case of a family emergency.

Nespoli, Expedition 27 commander Dmitry Kondratyev and NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, launched Dec. 15 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, are sticking with their flight schedule, gearing up for a return to Earth May 23 aboard a Russian Soyuz ferry craft as previously planned.