The future of space exploration according to NASA number two

The future of space exploration according to NASA number two

What will be the frontiers of the space economy? What are the horizons of exploration, from the orbits closest to the Earth to the Moon, and what are the criticalities of a sector that is now crucial for geopolitical equilibrium?

In a time of growing turmoil in extra-atmospheric activities, an escalation that from a global market of 447 billion dollars in 2020 promises to exceed a thousand within twenty years (source: See Lab), has the forum organized by Sda Bocconi's Space Economy Evolution Lab tried to answer a few days ago. As promised by the director, Simonetta Di Pippo, at the annual presentation of the laboratory, the forum stated right from the name - "Titan Brain Trust" - the ambition to become a meeting point between leading personalities in the sector. An opportunity, which Di Pippo guarantees will not remain unique, to take stock of the frontier issues of the space economy and to consolidate a network of strategic international relations, perhaps not only for the Milanese university.

Lo demonstrated the main guest, Pamela Melroy, ex-astronaut and from June 2021 deputy administrator of NASA, directly nominated by President Joe Biden.

Born in Palo Alto, California, 61 years ago, after Having earned a BA in Physics and Astronomy from Wellesey College and a Masters in Earth Sciences and Planetology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pamela Melroy joined the Air Force and became a test pilot and colonel. She took leave in 2007 after 6,000 hours of flying on 50 different aircraft and 200 hours of combat or combat support in the “Desert Storm” (in Iraq) and “Just Cause” (in Panama) campaigns.

She joined NASA in 1994 as an astronaut candidate, becoming the second and last woman (after Eileen Collins) to command a Space Shuttle mission, the Sts-120, in 2007. In each of her three trips to orbit , where he spent a total of 38 days, helped build the International Space Station. In November 2021, after having also worked for the Federal Aviation Administration and the DARPA, she was inducted into the United States Astronauts Hall of Fame. Italia took advantage of her invitation to the See Lab to learn more about some topics addressed by the symposium.

Milan, January 16, 2008: the astronauts of the Sts-120 mission are received by Roberto Formigoni. In the center Pamela Melroy and Paolo Nespoli (photo: Procopio / Ipa)

Melroy, her presence confirms a predilection for Italy. Is that so?

“I have many links with this country: first of all because some of my family members live in Rome, although they come from Paris. Then, of course, because I had the pleasure and honor of flying with Paolo Nespoli. It was for his first mission to orbit, my third: we went together to the International Space Station and today Paolo is a dear friend to me. That mission, however, allowed me to meet Simonetta Di Pippo - at the time the contact person for the Nespoli expedition and then director of Human Flight at the European Space Agency, ed - and many other people who work in the Italian space industry: orbit and installed an ISS node built in Milan. Since then, the bonds have not only remained strong, they have multiplied ".

Let's start with the elephant in the room: what responds to the many criticisms of Artemis 1's delays?

"When planning the first flight of an airplane, you don't take off immediately: first you taxi to the runway, then along the runway, then take the aircraft back to the hangar, analyze the data and any problems that may arise are resolved. Only then, when you are ready, do you take off, fly over the surrounding area and go back for the first landing. The problem, with space, is that all of this cannot be done: when you give the 'go' to a new rocket, you have to go all the way.

We are flying an entire first mission. Think about it: it is as if at the debut you wanted to fly an airplane to your destination, thousands of kilometers away (in our case hundreds of thousands). The complexity would be very high indeed. Examples aside, we have learned live from previous maiden flights. If my memory serves me right, the Space Shuttle needed three tries before leaving. It's not unusual for a first rocket, there are some that have tried many more times. In all honesty, I think most of the criticism is due to a lack of understanding of what it really means to put together a launch system and send it beyond the atmosphere for the first time. ”

And a who, like the Economist or the Washington Post, blames the Space Launch System for being born old and too expensive, what do they reply?

“Every system has pros and cons. The most important pro of SLS is that it is here, now, and it will allow us to take humans into deep space. So why shouldn't we use it? It makes perfect sense: it was designed for what we want to do. There are likely other emerging technologies, but let's be honest, at the moment the Space Launch System is the only one capable of accomplishing our mission. In the future, if there are other possibilities, we will consider them. Now, however, we will derive the maximum benefit from the investment made, because the Space Launch System allows things that nothing else in the world is able to do. As regards strictly the costs, then, it would be appropriate to remember something else ".


"The fact that Artemis is a program driven by reasons that NASA has a duty to stimulate and support: the desire for knowledge, our intention to remain leaders in science and technological development to improve the lives of our citizens. The fallout from the lunar program will be significant. Equally important will be the intangible gains, difficult to quantify but essential for a society that aims to progress. I go back to the Apollo missions and, as then, I know that what we do will inspire the new generations, will stimulate them to take an interest in scientific disciplines, the so-called Stems. Finally, do not forget that for anyone who has to do with it, Artemis is only the first step to go further, starting from Mars already in the second half of this century ”.

The imposing Space Launch System still on ramp 39B of the Kennedy Space Center, in Cape Canaveral (photo: Nasa)

Let's focus on the differences between Europe and the United States: from you the new space economy it is a reality capable of attracting more and more private initiatives and venture capital, which is still difficult on this side of the ocean. What do you think about it?

"Although the media today give a lot of prominence to the enterprises of companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin, NASA maintains and must maintain a central role in the development of the space ecosystem. We have the responsibility of scientific technical development and the duty to transfer the benefits to the community. The agency has a pivotal role in guiding the strategies, investments and development of the country in the space sector. It is a role that we cannot fail. Then, of course, this task implies involving industry and companies. We will not stop doing it. ”

In this context, what do you think could be the role of initiatives such as the Space Economy Evolution Lab of SDA Bocconi?

"Given that it would be more appropriate to ask the director of the laboratory, my perspective is that we are witnessing one of the turning points in the space industry. The sector is growing rapidly, maturing and beginning to resemble other industries. Above all, it is transforming itself in the variety of its business models. There is also a regulatory and bureaucratization activity that can promote and help it, or stifle it, as well as actions that the government would have to take if it wanted to stimulate it more than it already does. I can add that for ten years in the United States we have learned some new lessons, concepts that make me believe that Di Pippo has put together, here in Italy, something really appropriate, because it is not an engineering laboratory, but a group of work dedicated to management, a crucial aspect. It has to do with the increasingly relevant issues of 'making contemporary space': precisely, business models and policy on regulatory matters. I am convinced that, in order to contribute to the growth of the sector, it will also be important to do research in these areas in Europe ”.

Speaking of revolutions in the sector: do you think Italy can maintain an important role on a global level?

“I am convinced it is already doing it. I often discuss around the world with countries eager to grow in the space industry and I always point to Italy and Thales Alenia Space as examples of the highest level of expertise in the construction of pressurized modules. If you wanted to build a space station it would be foolish not to be inspired by the best. I think the situation is very similar, for example, in Canada with space robotics: building a key capability, which is global excellence and allows for customers everywhere, is a model that I consider very promising. The results prove me right. ”

Would it be a mistake to think that Artemis is also based on its economic prospects: data, infrastructural skills or the commercial exploitation of lunar resources?

"I think there are still aspects to be perfected in business models, so I will limit myself to telling my point of view on the evolution of the sector: certainly there are strong commercial stimuli regarding space transport, a mature environment and with an attentive community of observers. It was also understood how to build a business model in the field of lunar telecommunications. I am sure that the avant-garde consists of data intended as a service or element on which to build innovative applications, which already today affect almost all sectors: our appetite for global, omnipresent and timely data is destined to grow in every single sector of the daily life, always wanting to keep their competitiveness high. It is therefore inevitable to consider this area as a fundamental piece of space business models and it is no coincidence that it emerges with growing vigor at an industrial level.

As for the exploitation of extra-atmospheric resources, however, I believe it is an area of ​​great interest but in a more long-term perspective. As has already happened in similar contexts, for a business to become mature it is necessary for the technologies involved to progress to a certain point. When that happens, we will find ourselves at a decisive turning point. But it is too early to develop sustainable economic models ".

Pamela Melroy at the time of her missions on the Space Shuttle, of which she was the second and last female commander (photo: Nasa)

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