The woman who grew up with space. Interview with Amalia Ercoli Finzi
The mother of five children, Amalia Ercoli Finzi is considered as one of the major experts of aeronautical engineering. She was the first woman to graduate at the Polytechnic University of Milan and she has collaborated with some of the most important space missions carried out by the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency. She was involved in the Rosetta space mission, where she coordinated the development of the drill instrument of the Rosetta cometary mission.
You were the first Italian woman to graduate in aeronautical engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan...
Yes, the aerospace discipline did not exist yet. It was the academic year 1960-61 and there were only 5 girls among 650 boys. Just think that 27 boys proposed only during the first year. A few months after my graduation, Yuri Gagarin did the first human flight into space and that experience changed the face of history: this is when the space era started and I can say I grew up with it.
What are the space achievements that still leave you astonished today, besides Gagarin’s first flight?
Obviously, the development of the International Space Station: a technological masterpiece orbiting at 400 Km from the Earth and half of which was developed in Italy. And then, the Rosetta mission, of course, which allowed human ingenuity to put an artificial spacecraft on a comet for the first time in history.
Besides Rosetta, you have also been involved in the development of the International Space Station. In what way?
I was involved in stabilizing the large ISS truss. As there is no gravity in space, we tend to use extremely light materials for building, which however are not very stiff. This also applies to the large ISS truss, the lightness of which makes it subject to vibrations that can prevent the correct functioning of instruments. Therefore, I was involved in developing monitoring systems to increase its stiffness.
Then came the time for comet exploration and Rosetta mission.
The first one was Giotto, an extraordinary mission of the European Space Agency when we flew by Halley’s Comet at a speed of 245,000 Km/h. Then, came the Rosetta mission, which aimed at accompanying a Comet at its own speed: a very difficult goal that we have successfully achieved after an extraordinary journey lasted more than 10 years with 6.5 billion kilometres covered.
What was your task in the Rosetta mission?
I was scientific lead of Philae lander solar cells as well as Principal Investigator of the SD2 instrument, designed to drill, collect and analyze samples of the Comet’s soil. Not an easy task if you think that the drill had to work in an unknown environment, under extreme temperature conditions and over 10 years after its construction. Our work led to the development of the SD2 instrument by Selex ES, which is today part of the Leonardo group.
Has the drill managed to perform its task, after the Philae lander “bounced” on the Comet’s surface?
Philae came up beside 67P Comet at the ideal speed of 0.91 metres per second, at virtually walking speed; however, it did not manage to anchor to the Comet due to a malfunctioning of the harpoons. It then took a great leap of almost two kilometers and touched ground in an unexpected site of the Comet. We know that since then it has worked perfectly at all stages, but we still do not know if it has managed to collect soil samples, since it is in a tilted position. We are waiting for the study results.
Although the lander did not land perfectly, the Rosetta mission is considered as a great success in the history of space. Do you agree on this?
Yes, I absolutely do. We have obtained an extraordinary achievement and made the first soft landing on a Comet with a complex surface, such as 67P. We made a 10-year-long journey and the probe was woken up after 2.5 years of hibernation, which is an unprecedented experience. Being a European citizen, I can say that European States can achieve important goals when they work together to reach the same target, as it happened with the Rosetta mission.