Italian Space Agency President Bignami Ousted in Shakeup

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KOUROU, French Guiana — The Italian government apparently has dismissed the president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) following the resignation of six of seven ASI administrators in what looks to be an overhaul that will lead to the appointment of a Finmeccanica senior vice president as the agency’s president, Italian government officials said July 21.

For the moment, ASI President Giovanni Bignami said he is uncertain of his status. In a July 21 interview, Bignami said he has not resigned nor been asked to resign, although he admits that his ouster appears to have been decided at a meeting July 18 of Italy’s council of ministers.

ASI’s management turmoil—not the first in the agency’s history—appears to have begun July 5 with the resignation of six of the agency’s seven directors. As ASI president, Bignami was confirmed by both houses of the Italian parliament and thus benefits from a more bipartisan status. He apparently thought he could survive the mass resignation.

But a clear message that ASI’s management would change was delivered after the council of ministers meeting, during which one of the resigning directors—Piero Benvenuti—was named as one of two ASI commissioners tasked to help in the transition to new ASI leadership.

The same meeting of Italian government ministers named EnricoSaggese as ASI commissioner. Saggese is senior vice president of Finmeccanica with oversight of space affairs and a former chief executive of Telespazio, a satellite services company majority-owned by Finmeccanica.

In a July 21 interview here during an informal meeting of European government space ministers, Giuseppe Pizza, Italian state deputy secretary for education, universities and research, said Saggese is likely to replace Bignami in the coming two weeks.

“The government has taken note of the resignation of the six ASI directors and has asked EnricoSaggese to serve as commissioner,” Pizza said. The changeover in ASI management, he said, “is likely to occur by Aug. 8. We would like to move as quickly as possible because there are several important space policy events in […]

One major European government that collaborates with Italy on space affairs got wind of the ASI situation the week of July 18 and informed the Italian government of its concerns that a change in ASI management at this time would undermine preparations for several long- planned space policy meetings among European Space Agency and European Union nations between September and November, an official from the government in question said.

“The Italian government of course has a right to name whoever it likes, but the timing here is not advantageous,” this official said. “We just wanted to express our concerns about this. But apparently the decision was already made.”

Bignami, whose outspokenness and scientific literacy has given him a reputation well beyond , said he was concerned that the change at ASI would put Finmeccanica, whoseTelepazio and ThalesAlenia Space ownership stakes make it by far ‘s biggest space contractor, effectively in the driver’s seat at ASI.

“For the moment I have not resigned and no one has asked me to resign,” Bignami said. “There apparently was a decree issued by [Italian Premier Silvio] Berlusconi on July 18, but the text has not been published yet. The ball is now in the court of the minister” for education, universities and research, who has overall responsibility for Italian space policy. “What seems to be happening is similar to making a Boeing manager the administrator of NASA.”

Pizza dismissed concerns that Saggese, as a longtime executive at Finmeccanica, would not be able to carry out the duties of an ASI president in an objective manner. “Finmeccanica is a state company,” Pizza said. “This is not really an issue for us.” Pizza said the change in ASI does not signal a space policy shift […]