Special: Space, 30 years of history. An Interview with Luciano Guerriero, first ASI President
Italy is today one of the world leaders in space, a research and technology development sector with a direct impact on our lives. A key moment in this process was the creation of the Italian Space Agency in June 1988. On the occasion of the celebrations of ASI’s 30th anniversary, we interviewed the first ASI President, Luciano Guerriero.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Italian Space Agency. In what context was ASI founded?
In the 1970s Italy was already operating in space, thanks to figures like Broglio [Luigi, a pioneer in the space sector in Italy - Ed.], or collaborations such as Sirio, a highly successful satellite, where forces were joined for the first time, forming a critical mass, in a great cooperative effort in space. And then there was the scientific community working on the programmes of the European Space Agency. Italy contributed financially to the European Agency’s programmes, supporting various projects.
What was missed then?
Italian industries were always left with the crumbs, they brought home little in terms of quality and quantity. And so, some forward-looking members of the governments of the time carried out studies, seeking advice from the scientific community and the industrial community, to understand how Italy could gain its natural place in the world space community. And they decided that a coordinated multiannual action plan was needed, working in such a way that CIPE [Interministerial Committee for Economic Programming - Ed.] passed a resolution in 1979 to fund space with a five-year rolling plan that was reviewed every two years.
How did we get from there to the establishment of ASI?
This process made it possible to carry out a coordinated action led by CNR [the National Research Council - Ed.], which set up a kind of finalized project that I directed at that time. And in parallel, in eight years, the Parliament passed a law to set up the Agency. In 1988, then, the structure created within CNR became the Agency. And all the programmes that the Agency implemented since then were inherited from initiatives born within that programme. In those years, the provision that came from the government and the industrial and scientific communities was to rely on a close alliance with NASA to implement ambitious projects of entire space systems, and not small details, as happened to Italian industries when they operated within ESA [the European Space Agency - Ed.].
The Tethered programme, developed from an idea by Professor Colombo, which sent the “tethered satellite” into space [an experiment designed to test whether it was possible to use the Earth’s magnetic field to provide electricity to satellites - Ed.]. Or the Iris system, a launcher that set a geodetic satellite in motion. This was the only non US built launch system to be used on board a Space Shuttle. A remarkable result considering that putting a launcher in a Shuttle requires an extremely high level of safety and technology, with guarantees far beyond those required for launchers departing from Earth.
And many subsequent initiatives, such as the construction of a large part of the International Space Station in the laboratories of Alenia Spazio, derive from the agreements signed with NASA in previous years. The Cassini-Huygens probe that arrived at Saturn came later, but the first agreements with JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Ed.] regarding Italy’s contribution to Cassini started even before the Agency was established.
How did the idea of creating this strategic coordination body come about?
The idea came from Professor Gianni Puppi, the physicist who shaped the history of the European Space Agency. In fact, ESA resulted from the “death” of two European structures: ELDO, for the European launcher development, and ESRO, for the scientific programmes. When these two structures started to decline, Puppi managed to bring all the European partners together, being considered a bit as the father of ESA by his European colleagues. An internationally renowned physicist, in Italy Puppi had great intuition for industrial interests and in the 1970s he promoted meetings in the political, scientific and industrial world to understand how Italy should define its role in the future of space. The idea for the Agency was born there.
Talking about illustrious names, one of the pioneers of Italian space activities is Luigi Broglio, the “father” of San Marco, the first Italian satellite to be launched into orbit…
When the Agency was founded, Luigi Broglio became a member of the Board. But even before that, when CNR was temporarily made responsible for space activities, it created a scientific and advisory committee with the best brains in the space sector. The committee included Broglio, Buongiorno [Carlo, first Director General of the Italian Space Agency - Ed.], Professor Bepi Colombo, after whom the space mission for the exploration of Mercury was named, and others. Some twenty people who represented both the scientific community and the industrial world, and who allowed the space plan to make some choices.
And the policy of aligning with NASA and having a plan that could be funded safely and reviewed every two years, in which sums were not diverted to other actions but certainly needed to be optimized for the programme approved by CIPE, worked perfectly.
We have talked about Italy’s past in space. How do you see the future?
When I was involved in space, there were Italian companies that wanted to become prime contractors, and they were large national companies. Now there aren’t any national companies anymore, the large consortia are multinational. Therefore, in my opinion, the logic that national space agencies should follow is no longer the same as it used to be. On the one hand, there are small and medium-sized high-tech companies that need to find protection and opportunities to expand; on the other hand, there are levels of activity that involve a more European dimension, to which it is necessary to contribute by playing an active role in order to have authority in decisions and competence when it comes to making technology choices.