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Interview with Prof. Francesconi, Chairman of the 1^ Symposium on Space Educational Activities

Venerdì 18 Settembre 2015

Prof Alessandro Francesconi from the Department of Industrial Engineering in Padua University, is the Chairman of the first European Symposium on space activities for students. The event will be held in December in the Padua Congress Centre, and we were very curious about it so asked him for an interview, which he kindly granted.


Professor Francesconi, where does your interest in aerospace studies come from?

I was studying engineering in Padua and met Professor Francesco Angrilli, who was involved in the wired satellite mission. He became my teacher and I fell in love with the same field of studies.

Wired satellite? What does that mean?

Perhaps I should go back a moment. Perhaps not everybody knows that Padua has long-standing traditions in space studies, which began with Professor Giuseppe Colombo (photo), one of the inventors of the wired satellite. This idea “pushed” the first Italian astronaut into space: it was 1992 and the astronaut was Franco Malerba. In wired systems two satellites are joined by a conductor cable and by interaction with the land electromagnetic field they can produce electric energy in space, without needing fuel. The experiment demonstrated this concept and was a success for Italian research.
My professor, Francesco Angrilli, was also a student of Giuseppe Colombo, who received the gold medal from NASA for extraordinary scientific merit.

So NASA missions work thanks to Italian  research?

In some cases yes. Professor Colombo, who I mentioned earlier, won the NASA gold medal because he realised that the profile could be changed of a Mariner Mission to Mercury, and obtained a much higher scientific return. He made his calculations with pencil and paper and he convinced him. The recent ESA mission to Mercury was called “Bepi Colombo” in his honour.

Let’s go back to Italian astronauts: in your opinion why did the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti become so popular?

Because I feel she personifies a person who is passionate about their goal and does not give up until it is achieved. Space research requires this passion, because no short term results are obtained. The merit of the great professors from Padua, who I named, was that of transmitting all their great passion and motivation. We have to follow a dream – which does not mean that we will end up working close to home however.


Why did ESA choose Padua for the First Symposium on the Space educational activities?

To be truthful it was our idea to suggest it, driven by our students’ great passion. The European Space Agency is very attentive to all educational activities, and gave its support as education office. In scientific and technical fields we have to study the books, but also get practical experience as well. For example, the students are given the chance to take part in real space activities, having their experiments fly in stratospheric balloons up to 40 km high, or in a suborbital rocket, simulating the absence of gravity in a plane in parabolic flight, or a free fall tower, or experiment hyper-gravity conditions with a centrifugal system. To become “real” engineers we must train and try to solve problems from a practical point of view. So both motivation and practical teaching are important.

What advantage do students have who study aerospace engineering?

Space studies are carried out internationally. With the Aerospace Engineering graduate course run by our Department of Industrial Engineering, and through CISAS – Centre for University Studies and Space Activities, our university is an environment with numerous interlinks and is active in a large number of international, scientific and technological, space projects, working with the leading space agencies and sector industries.


What contacts do you have with enterprise?

We have contacts with both the large spacecraft manufacturers and small-medium enterprise, who also work in Italy, who supply small parts, components and services that are needed to create a space mission.
The Large Spacecraft Manufacturers are companies like Airbus, Boeing, Thalesaleniaspace, OHB, who develop complete space systems, often to order from the space agencies. Our role for these companies is mainly to provide advice, feasibility studies and tests, but sometimes components and subsystems. We work differently with the small-medium enterprises, involving them in the production of the prototypes and often offering them training courses in order to work in the aerospace field. Many components of past missions that Padua University worked on, like Rosetta for example, were produced locally by small companies, thanks to the support from CISAS.

Are there also applications in the civil sector?

Yes. For example, effects on applied research in various engineering fields, such as robotics, fluid-dynamics, material sciences, and also biology and medicine: by examining how the human body works when there is no gravity we can analyse and better understand certain physiological processes.

Will we become space tourists one day?

To be honest I don’t know. But I can tell you stories of men who were audacious to say the least. Like the founder of PayPal, the famous online payment system, who sold his company to found another dedicated exclusively to constructing rockets to take man into space.
It doesn’t seem to be a very profitable business. However now, after closing the NASA Space Shuttle project, it is the only private organization able to carry men to the orbiting space station.
So it is the only “supplier” to NASA…

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