Cristoforetti was born in Milan in 1977. She spent her childhood in Malè, in Val di Sole, Trentino, Italy. When she was 18, she took a US foreign exchange program and attended Space Camp.
She studied in Bolzano and Trento and graduated from the Technical University of Munich with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She studied at the École nationale supérieure de l'aéronautique et de l'espace in Toulouse, France, and at the Mendeleev Russian University of Chemistry and Technology in Moscow. She graduated in Aeronautics Sciences (University 'Federico II', Naples) at the Accademia Aeronautica in Pozzuoli, becoming one of the first women to be a lieutenant and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force. She is the second Space Camp alumnus in orbit. As part of her training, she completed the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot training. She has logged over 500 hours and has flown six types of military aircraft: SF-260, T-37, T-38, MB-339A, MB-339CD and AM-X. She now holds the rank of captain.
Cristoforetti was officially selected as an astronaut in 2009 by the European Space Agency.
On 3 July 2012, the European Space Agency announced that Cristoforetti was set for a long-duration mission to the ISS in 2014.
On 23 November 2014, Soyuz TMA-15M, carrying Cristoforetti and two other astronauts launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. It successfully docked at the International Space Station roughly six hours later. Cristoforetti, along with her crew mates, returned safely from the ISS on 11 June 2015. She stayed 199 days in space and so became the holder of the record for the longest single mission for a woman. Previously, the NASA astronaut Sunita Williams held that record with 195 days after her Expedition 33 mission to the ISS. Cristoforetti's record was beaten on June 5, 2017 by Peggy Whitson during Expedition 52.
Cristoforetti's mission to the ISS was called Futura. During her stay she performed numerous scientific experiments simulating prolonged stay in space and Lunar and Mars orbit. She was the primary operator during the undocking of the ATV-5. In February 2015, she began the outreach program "Mission X: Train Like an Astronaut", where students 8–12 years old were challenged to get fit during a nine-week program, while Cristoforetti trained in space. Other outreach activities included learning how the Spirulina algae can be a source of food, while creating photosynthesis in a recycled air environment.
Cristoforetti was slated for 1, up to possibly 3, space walks, however when part of her personal EVA equipment was lost due to the failed launch of the Orbital Cygnus Orb-3 mission in October 2014, those EVAs were scrapped. That equipment for the ISS crew was on board of the failed Orb-3 mission is clear from the manifest of its cargo. It lists: Total Cargo: 2,215 kg (With packaging: 2,296 kg) of which EVA Equipment: 66 kg.
Cristoforetti has been photographed with references to the Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy on her shirt while her crewmate Anton Shkaplerov had a shirt with the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (being 42). ISS Expedition Mission 42 blog has a special section called "don't panic". In April 2015, when the Dragon capsule bringing the space espresso machine arrived, she posted a picture of herself on Twitter wearing a Starfleet uniform, with the comment "'There's coffee in that nebula'... ehm, I mean... in that #Dragon" (referencing Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, and her love of coffee), and again with the first cup of coffee brewed on the ISS. On February 28, 2015, the day following the death of Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Mr. Spock on Star Trek, she photographed herself in the Cupola, wearing a Starfleet pin on her shirt and giving the Vulcan salute. A one-month delay after the failure of two Russian rockets extended her stay in space past the European astronaut and female astronaut endurance records.
On 16 July 2015 she was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (Italian: Ordine al merito della Repubblica Italiana) by President Mattarella. "She has been followed with affection and love by all Italians" said the Italian President. The Order of Merit is the senior order of knighthood, the highest ranking honour of the Republic.
Cristoforetti can speak Italian, English, German, French, Russian and is studying Chinese. Italy Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic on March 6, 2013
Italy Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic on July 16, 2015