Simonetta Di Pippo
Head, European Space Policy Observatory, Italian Space Agency (ASI) Brussels
President and Co-Founder of Women in Aerospace Europe
Chair, International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Study Group “Public/Private Human Access to Space”
Simonetta, I was fascinated when I learned that the asteroid number 21887 was named ‘’Dipippo’’ by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as an acknowledgement of your commitment to space exploration!
Please tell us about this incredible achievement and about your passion for space and astrophysics; how did it start?
Asteroid 21887 “Dipippo” is a main-belt minor planet, which means it is in orbit around the Sun in a region between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter. It was discovered on October 20th, 1999 by the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. It revolves around the Sun every 5.14 years, meaning it completes an orbit every 1876.9 days. IAU decided to give my name to the asteroid 21887 in 2008, the same year in which I took up duty as Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency, making me their first woman Director ever.
I’ve always been fascinated by scientific discoveries, but I cannot recall a specific moment when my passion for space originated. I can tell you however that the landing of the first two men on the Moon had an impact for sure; I was10 years old, so I was impressed by the abilities of humankind. From that moment onwards I’ve been working with the aim of keeping that passion alive, and I must say, until now, I have succeeded.
What are your major responsibilities in your current occupation? Your work is in a very innovative sector, so could you please tell us what are the most important challenges for aerospace these days?
With my arrival in Brussels about one year ago, the Italian Space Agency established itself for the first time in town. It is a clear recognition of the importance ASI is attaching to the European Institutions located here but also elsewhere. One of the main responsibilities
I have is to reinforce the relationships between the Italian space community and ASI with other countries, which are active in space, like Belgium, Luxemburg, The Netherlands, and the Countries in Northern Europe.
I’m also very active in finding potential links and interests for cooperation with other international entities through the network which I have been developing in Brussels. With the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020 allocations and the Horizon 2020 program about to start, space activities will get a boost.
In fact, this is the first time in history the EC will get dedicated budgets not only for the Galileo and Copernicus projects, but also for space technologies. It’s a consequence of the Lisbon Treaty (“Taking Europe in the 21st century”, 1st December 2009) in a way and the positive effects are that the overall European budget will increase, the EC budget will be added to the ESA budget, and the national agencies budgets will be more available also for domestic programs.
Talking about challenges, I see several of them:
- The need to reinforce the industrial sector in Europe, to allow our industries to compete in a global market (and I feel that the EC Communication about the Industrial space policy issued last February will help a lot in keeping our policy on the right track)
- The need to increase harmonization of defense and civilian programs, without impacting on the latter
- The need to develop sustainable technologies for the future exploration of space, mainly in reinforcing the independent access to space for European countries
- The need to educate our future space pioneers in order to merge technical and management skills for the benefit of space activities in general, but also to promote an increase in the number of successful start-ups and SMEs (Small Medium Enterprises) which are the backbone of the applications and services in the space industry.
Simonetta Di Pippo and the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli
What about security and safety in space?
The future of space activities depends on people realizing the importance of space exploration for a sustainable future for humankind.
The awareness of the general public and the politicians must be encouraged. This would not only be helpful in fields like protection from asteroids, human spaceflight safety, removing space debris from orbit, but also make people aware of how many satellites we use in everyday life and how our health is improving due to it.
Simonetta, just out of curiosity: has the aerospace industry led to any discoveries in medicine and medical treatment?
Indeed, it has. Let me give you some important examples. Thanks to repeated experiments on board the International Space Station, it has been demonstrated that in microgravity conditions the virulence of the foodborne pathogen salmonella increases. In particular, it has been verified that 167 genes and 73 proteins including the virulence-associated ones, have been altered in the salmonella circular chromosome during growth in microgravity conditions. Therefore, recently, an experiment was conducted and a genetically modified Salmonella-based anti-pneumococcal vaccine flew in space.
In fact, by understanding the effect of microgravity culture on the gene expression and immunogenicity of the vaccine strain, the goal is to genetically modify the strain back on Earth to enhance its ability to confer a protective immune response against pneumococcal pneumonia. Applying the same approach to various diseases and relevant pathogens, space and microgravity conditions can become the place in which it is possible to understand how to develop new vaccines for most of the virulent diseases on Earth, saving an incredibly high number of human beings from death and dramatically reducing the economic loss associated with these kinds of diseases.
Let me describe another example. Thanks to the technological solutions which had to be found for astronauts in space, it is now possible for anybody to measure the pressure of their eye or the body’s temperature via their ears here on Earth. Only a few examples, but it gives you the feeling of how important the experiments we are doing in space are.
All in all, it’s more about how non-space companies are able to use the microgravity conditions developed by aerospace companies to create a magnificent laboratory in space.
You are the co-founder of “Women in Aerospace (WIA) Europe”; an organisation dedicated to expanding women's opportunities for leadership and increasing their visibility in the aerospace community.
How were you inspired to found it? What are the main activities and targets?
I co-founded Women in Aerospace-Europe, WIA-E, in June 2009 with Claudia Kessler, CEO of HE Space and Chair of the WIA-E Board. I have the honor of being President and leading the association since its inception. We currently have more than 250 individual members, 10 corporate members, three strategic agreements signed with strategic partners (COSPAR, ISU and SGAC, the Space Generation Advisory Council) plus a collaboration agreement with WIA in US.
Our members have the advantage of being part of our ever-growing network, benefiting from our programs and special member offers, as well as connecting with like-minded professionals through our local communities. Our final goal is to develop a society in which diversity will not be noticed anymore and to advocate the importance of space activities for our society at the same time. Rich with opportunity, our various activities offer something for everyone. We offer mentoring programs, awards, grants, training workshops, networking local groups and much more. In addition to this, both our regional and central events regularly feature speakers and panel discussions on a wide range of topics of interest to our community, and we keep members updated with valuable information such as scholarships and conferences.
STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are key in shaping a sustainable future and with WIA Europe we are very keen to promote an increase of attention of the younger generation towards a future based on innovation and knowledge.
Why was I inspired to found it? Well, when I moved from the Italian Space Agency to take up the position of Director of Human Spaceflight at ESA, I felt I had done a lot in my professional career, but always on my own. I had no mentors, no role models to follow. I had to fight to show my abilities and I discovered by myself that sometimes it’s very difficult to be listened to and understood because the system is still male-dominated. It is simply that men and women have a different leadership style and approach and it can happen that men simply do not understand us.
I like Lynn Cline's statement on the WIA website:
"WIA was intended initially to provide a forum for networking. WIA was open to men as well as women, recognizing that given the demographics in the aerospace field:
(1)There was no point in women exclusively networking among themselves,
(2) Many of us have benefited from male mentors or advocates who have assisted our career development, and
(3) Discrimination is illegal for such a non-profit group.
So the thought was that men could be equally devoted to the advancement of women in aerospace and the organization should welcome both genders in that cause".
How do you find this in practice, do men authentically support women’s advancement? Do you have a positive example to share with our readership? Will you share with us an example of a lack of support or of discrimination?
I fully support Lynn’s statement, except on one point: I often hear that women need male mentors and advocates to develop their career but I completely disagree.
I do believe men and women are different in their approach to being leaders, managing teams and safeguarding the company for which they work. Men and women complement each other in the working environment. A man can only mentor a woman in the way he knows, i.e., a man's way. For this reason, I am against it, at least if we use it as a rule.
I believe we have no need for discrimination, neither negative nor positive; men and women with the same opportunities under the same conditions will naturally result in a balanced representation.
Currently, however, there is the need to introduce quota (even though I've always been against it) because otherwise the process will take too long and we need to speed it up. When women are more present in selection committees, just to provide an example, we will assist in a natural increase in female representation in various institutions and companies in Europe, simply because we will not be biased anymore and only the best candidates will be hired and promoted, regardless of their gender.
Which steps would you recommend and what advice would you give to young people attracted by the aerospace industry? What are the potential career areas in aerospace now and in the coming years?
Are you involved in any initiatives to attract young girls to take up a career in aerospace?
In the field of aerospace, our professional life is mixed with our personal one. After a while one starts to know people all over the world, to talk over the phone in the middle of the night (or at lunch time in order to have both Japanese and Americans available at the same time), to rush up and work overnight if a problem arises in orbit on the International Space Station, the international laboratory orbiting at 400 km above our heads with 6 astronauts permanently on board. This has been my “normal” life for decades, and especially in my capacity as Director of Human Spaceflight at ESA.
What should attract young people to space? Inspiration, passion, long-term vision, innovation….and more.
Would you like to share with us a professional dream you have not yet realised?
In my professional field, I am used to thinking about long term projects. I know that an idea for a space mission brought up now could possibly become a reality after 20 or even 30 years, and sometimes even more.
So, no unfulfilled dreams. But there is a mission I would like to see happen, a mission to explore the ocean under the layer of ice on Europa, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Finally, another ocean discovered and explored after that time when Christopher Columbus sailed on the uncharted sea in 1492 to reach America. There is the potential we could find other forms of life, close to our own or not. Either way, it would be great.
I strongly believe in the importance of networking. It provides the possibility to solve any issue at any time if you simply know who to ask and who is able to do what you need doing. Networking is therefore key in the space industry, but I would also say it's key in day-by-day life.
In various fields there are structures and organisations that we can use to improve our knowledge. The best and quickest way is to create a network of networks. In the space industry we already do that. We tend to have, in each country, the freedom to decide what we want to develop, how, and when. However at the same time we build up the underlying architecture for the future in which each country can find its proper place. I call it "Autonomy for cooperation."
In trying to balance the female representation in the professional environment, with the aim of diversity not being recognized anymore in our society in general, and trying to advocate space exploration as a tool for the peaceful advancement of humankind at the same time, “Autonomy for cooperation” is imperative, and the build up of the network of networks mandatory. I have been working with this goal in mind for a long time now. I’m sure a recognition will come, soon.
Simonetta Di Pippo, was awarded her Master’s degree in Astrophysics and Space Physics from The Sapienza University of Rome in 1984 and joined the Italian Space Agency (ASI) in 1986. Her areas of expertise range from Earth Observation to Automation & Robotics and Science and Human Spaceflight.
In 2002 she took up duty as Director for L’Osservazione dell’Universo (ASI’s space science and exploration department).
Director of Human Spaceflight at the European Space Agency (ESA) from 2008 to 2011, she is currently the Head of the European Space Policy Observatory at ASI – Brussels. Starting from June 2009, she is President and co-founder of the international association Women in Aerospace Europe (WIA-E), based in the Netherlands and with the main goal of expanding women’s representation and leadership in the aerospace sector.
Currently she is also the Chair of the Study “Public/Private Human access to space”, on behalf of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) dealing with the future of commercial passenger space travel.
In recognition of her accomplishments in space exploration she was knighted by the President of the Italian Republic in 2006 and in 2008 the International Astronomical Union named the asteroid 21887 “Dipippo” after her.
She is the author of more than 60 publications, more than 700 articles and has been interviewed by various magazines and newspapers. Member and President of scientific committees of international congresses. Member and President of the scientific awards’ jury. She has been lecturing at various Universities, including the George Washington University in Washington D.C. and the LUISS Business School in Rome.
She is the author of a blog - called Spazio Green - on LaStampa.it, devoted to providing information about the use of satellites and space activities to improve the quality of life on Earth. She is also a member of the editorial board of the New Space Journal.
Since April 2013, she is a selected member of the ReadyForBoardWomen project devoted to select “ready to be appointed” women in Management Boards of Italian and International companies.
In May 2013 she received an Honorary Degree in Environmental Studies from St. John International University. She is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on international cooperation in the aerospace sector.
Disclaimer - Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) Brussels, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.