Editorial | No Honeymoon for New ASI President

by

The new president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), Roberto Battiston, has his work cut out for him with the agency facing tough decisions and negotiations in the coming months that will define Italy’s role in — and thus help shape — crucial European Space Agency programs.

ESA programs at the crossroads include Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 launcher, the two-part ExoMars mission and ESA’s participation in the international space station.

A physicist by training, Mr. Battiston took the reins of ASI May 17 in the wake of the February resignation of Enrico Saggese amid a probe of alleged contracting irregularities. During the interim period, ASI was run by Aldo Sandulli, a law professor at Naples University.

The upheaval came at a particularly inopportune time, what with ESA preparing for a December ministerial meeting in Luxembourg that is expected to determine its investment strategy in the years ahead. Italy is among the top four ESA contributors along with Germany, France and Britain, and for that and other reasons has an important, perhaps even pivotal, seat at the negotiating table.

Perhaps the biggest decision facing the ministers is the Ariane 6 launcher design, where France and Germany are at loggerheads. France favors a design featuring a solid-fueled first stage, whereas Germany is pushing a vehicle with a liquid-fueled main stage. 

Italy’s stake in the decision stems in part from the fact that it has the lead on ESA’s solid-fueled Vega small-satellite launcher. ASI will be pushing Vega upgrades at the meeting that likely will be directly applicable to work on the Ariane 6. A solid fueled Ariane 6 first stage also would lower the cost of Vega production through economies of scale and would directly benefit Italian industry, which along with France produces the fuel. 

Also up for debate at the December meeting are the relative contributions of ESA members to the U.S.- and Russian-led international space station program through 2020. Italy has long been a major participant in the station, but its diminished contribution since 2012 has rankled Germany, which has had to pick up the slack.

Another item on ASI’s agenda in particular is ExoMars, which features launches in 2016 and 2018 aboard Russian rockets. Italy has the lead industrial role on ExoMars and will be seeking assurances from other ESA members that the mission will be fully funded. 

Into this very complicated mix of often competing yet interrelated priorities steps Mr. Battiston, who previously was a professor of advanced physics at the University of Trento. In his first public remarks since taking over at ASI, Mr. Battiston said the agency views the programs in question “as a single, package deal,” an indication that he recognizes the complexity of the situation and has his eye on the big picture.

Here’s wishing Mr. Battiston support and luck as he seeks to move ASI past the corruption scandal and carve out Italy’s place at ESA over the next several years. Judging from the difficult choices on the table, he will need a lot of the former, and perhaps a bit of the latter.