The astronaut Vittori (ESA): “A spaceport in Grottaglie? There may be conditions for sub-orbital flights “- La Stampa


«A new era has begun for astronautics. Private companies have become absolute protagonists, and the two missions of these days represent new and important stages in this direction ».

The “Demo-2” mission of Space X, of the Crew Dragon spacecraft with the astronauts Behnken and Hurley, postponed until Saturday evening due to meteorological causes, opens a new era for astronautics and manned missions.

Roberto Vittori is an Italian astronaut from ESA, the European space agency, and for some years he has been involved in aeronautics and space at the Italian Embassy in Washington. He works in the USA, but maintains very close relations with Italy especially for collaborations with various universities. He has the rank of General of Air Brigade of the Italian Air Force, with a great experience as a military pilot and test driver (on fighters, transport aircraft, helicopters, and even gliders). Then, since 1998 she is an astronaut, and has taken part in three missions, two on board Russian Sojuz (2002 and 2005) and one on the Shuttle, in 2011, the Endeavor STS 134 (the last historic mission of the space shuttle).

Among the various records, Vittori was the first European to arrive on board the International Space Station three times, and the first non-Russian cosmonaut to qualify as a pilot of the Soyuz.

Roberto Vittori, direct witness and protagonist of the last phase of American crewed flights. Now, with Crew Dragon, we start again …
“The American machine for flights with astronauts restarts:” American astronauts on American rockets from American soil “. Of course, the Crew Dragon is a spacecraft of a different concept from the Space Shuttle. After the great adventure of the first” sweeper “(the Space Shuttle) has decided to return to the classic capsule concept. In any case private companies, such as Space X which is about to launch the first astronauts on the Dragon, are working very well. Space X born in 2002 like any startup (at the time with only three people), now it has over 6,000 of them working. They are the protagonists of great missions, for the low Earth orbit, therefore to reach the International Space Station, but they also look to the future, and therefore to Moon and Mars ».

What is the strategic importance of these missions?
«It is technological in nature, but also commercial. For example, Space X is the first in the world to launch rockets, with its Falcon 9, whose first stage then manages to recover, and to launch again with a subsequent mission. A non-trivial undertaking, which had never been successful so far. Same thing for Falcon Heavy. A real and incredible success. Even Blue Origin managed to achieve the recovery of the first stage, thus entering this exclusive group … ».

On Sunday, Virgin Orbit, sister of Virgin Galactic, launched its first satellite into orbit. And from a 747 plane … Another record of a private company. What are the benefits?
It is a method already started with Pegasus missiles since the nineties. It has many advantages. The main thing, however, is that by launching from an aircraft you are not bound to the ramp, so you can operate from the point of the Earth considered most advantageous. These are satellites, such as the one launched by Virgin, already of moderate size, about 300 kilograms. This too is a new era that opens up ».

By the way, Richard Branson’s company represents another important chapter …
“Surely. Suborbital flights have particular value both from a technological and commercial point of view. Space Ship 2 is both an aircraft and a space shuttle. Which is the ideal compromise to come and go between Earth and low orbits. The capsules are in fact suitable means for the exploration of distant destinations of the solar system: Moon, Mars, and so on. The concept of spacecraft, as was the Shuttle, and as it had been conceived since the beginning of astronautics with the X-15 or X-24, must be pursued as it forms the basis of future generation transport » .

In Europe, there is the “Spacerider” program, a mini-shuttle that will be able to launch for the first time in 2022. What do you think?
«It is an example of an orbital shuttle, however only recoverable. Instead the Shuttle, as well as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2, or even the USAF X-37B mini-shuttle, are also reusable. The fundamental requirement for this type of technology, besides safety, is its being reusable. In order to guarantee safety and reusability, a shuttle must have landing capacity on the runway. To have the ability to maneuver and therefore to land on the runway, the only real way is to have small wings. Atmospheric re-entry is a difficult compromise. In the upper part the shuttle must survive the aerothermodynamic forces; in the lower part you need maneuverability. The X37B as well as the Space Shuttle had this type of design with wings suitably designed to guarantee both safety and reusability “.

Italy is thinking of building a spaceport in Grottaglie. Does Italy also launch into space tourism?
«The concept of spaciport is general. Cape Canaveral or Kourou are spaceports. However, today there are many airports that have been authorized to carry out suborbital flights and, as such, are identified as spaceports. Even Grottaglie could have the conditions to host suborbital flights. In fact, Italy has ideal conditions for geography and climate. There are also other runways and structures where air traffic is very limited, near areas of the sea or in any case uninhabited, which could allow a hypothetical suborbital shuttle to go back in safe conditions ».

The Italian Air Force has long since strengthened its space sector. Another sector that sees Italy as the protagonist, such as the Cosmo-Skymed multi-use satellites, for example?

«The natural evolution of technology will lead airplanes to become spaceplanes, airports that will evolve into spaceports. In this sense, the main actor is the Air Force. Same thing if we think about the security and defense of the skies. The risk of involuntary return of satellites or shuttles or of significant debris in any case becomes progressively higher as demonstrated by the “Tiangong” case. China had lost control and therefore could have fallen anywhere on the earth’s surface, therefore even on inhabited areas or even on cities. Hence the importance of having the Air Force to strengthen its surveillance, monitoring and intervention systems, reaching operational capacity throughout the aerospace belt and down to low orbits “.

Roberto, what is the concept of “space” for you?
“The term” space “is very, perhaps too generic. It is as if instead of speaking of London or Rome or of Monaco, of the United States or of Europe, we had as the only term that is “Earth”. It is important to articulate the speech more appropriately. To start, up to the low orbits of must speak of “aerospace” where the main forces are aerothermodynamic ones. Then you could use the term “cislunare” or what is between the low orbits and the lunar orbit. Then we can talk about deep space. Among other things, this could be not only a simple reorganization of terms, but a new mapping of skills and related priorities “.

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