Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality at ESA, Franco Ongaro, talked to SciTech Europa about the latest technology developments since the Moon landings 50 years ago.
At the beginning of October 2019, SciTech Europa Quarterly attended the ESA’s Open Day: ‘ESA to the Moon’. The event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo lunar landing, as well as highlighting ESA’s role in returning people to the Moon, including contributing the service module to NASA’s Orion spacecraft and participating in the Lunar Gateway, a station around the Moon to act as a base for both robotic and human explorers.
Whilst at the event, SEQ spoke to the Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality at ESA, Franco Ongaro, about the importance of industry participation in the development of technologies for space missions.
Given that we are celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the moon landings, what would you say have been the biggest technological developments which will aid a return to the lunar surface?
The Apollo gave the first big impulse to the miniaturisation of electronics, and that is certainly one of the most visible change since then. The Lunar Lander had 15 kilobits of memory; today even the handheld devices we use in our everyday lives have much more memory than that. In addition, astonishing progress has also been made in terms of materials and the capacity, for instance, of 3D printing parts from materials (and this is something that we are pioneering in order to be able to do this on the moon). I believe the materials, electronics, and the software that goes with the electronics or the capacity to calculate etc. are probably some of the largest developments we have seen. However, the basic way to get to space has not evolved as quickly.
Do you think more needs to be done to better understand the effects of space on the human body over long periods?
We need to certainly to work on that, in terms of both moving on to Mars staying longer on the Moon – although, of course, there are big differences between the two. The first crewed Apollo mission lasted for just 11 days, and that was a record. By now, we have accumulated years of in-orbit experience with our astronauts; the knowledge that we gain from the ISS and so on is enormous, and that allows us to move further in that direction. That is particularly true for what effects space has on human bones, as well as in terms of radiation, and there is a lot of work going on in this latter area because radiation is also an issue in other areas – for instance, we are working on how to protect satellites from space weather radiation etc.
One aspect which we are working on separately via isolation tests, for example, is the psychological effects that long durations in space could have. That, for me, is always a very big question because on the ISS the astronauts and cosmonauts know they can get back to Earth in just a few hours, but when you are on the way to Mars and the Earth becomes a little speck, then it is crucial for us to understand what effect that will have on the crew.
How important is industry participation in the development of technologies for space missions? How does ESA support this?
We are here to support industry and we couldn’t do any of what we do without industry. However, many future space missions and activities require competences which are very specific and laboratories and infrastructures which are very specific. Therefore, if every industry was obliged to have its own such infrastructure in order to do its job, then this would make it all but impossible for SMEs to survive. Indeed, even the big companies encounter problems because they only do a mission like the Solar Orbiter once every 20 or 30 years. ESTEC is thus the place where industry can find the laboratories as well as the competence of the people using the laboratories and the capacity to actually help them do the initial work to see whether a technology makes sense or not; we can also help with the troubleshooting when something goes wrong during the development or even in flight. It is a real synergistic relationship, and while in many other countries around the world this is driven by military research, in Europe it is really driven by ESA and places like ESTEC.
How easy or difficult is it to share technologies with other space agencies?
It depends very much what field you are working in. Space is not a discipline; it is a place. When we look at space, there are areas which are non-competitive by definition. So, when we talk about science, of course we do share as much as possible of what we learned, and the one who pays for the instrument will keep the data for the first six months in order to be the one who publishes it, but then that data becomes public, because that is what science is all about. Even those first ones work together in a team – it is normal to have teams made up of both Europeans and Americans, for instance. This is also true when it comes to exploration. On the other hand, there are areas which are by nature competitive: launchers, telecoms, and, to a certain extent, navigation, although there we co-operate a lot because Galileo and GPS are fully interoperable. In terms of Earth observation, all the data we produce is given out because that’s the way you help industry – you give them free data and they know it’s going to be repeatable data for the future, meaning that they can find investors and develop their business.
In terms of Space +19, what are you most excited about?
I am most excited about the fact that we have a brand new programme that we call ‘space security’. There’s always been an element of reluctance by Member States to find a way to invest in areas which do not yet have applications or markets, but which are not just pure science. If you look at space weather, it’s not like meteorology yet but it’s emerging as an important sector. At the same time, if you look at space debris and in-orbit servicing, we don’t have a market but it is clearly a big problem for us, so somebody has got to do something. The same is true of asteroids – we are probably the first generation to do something about asteroids and NEOs, and it would be irresponsible not to do something about them.
Franco Ongaro, Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality, European Space Agency.
Disclaimer: This article is featured in the December issue of SciTech Europa Quarterly.