Applying a technological point of view: Monica Politano interview

Monica Politano

Monica Politano heads the Planning and Implementation section of ESA’s Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP) – ESA’s main ‘ideas factory’, originating new technologies and planning their development to the point other technology programmes or missions can take them up. She played a pivotal part in the start of ESA's first activities related to environmental sustainability, anticipating Clean Space.

“TRP involves long-term planning looking at least five to 10 years in the future, identifying future mission requirements and coming up with ideas, activities and programmes to meet them,” explains Monica.

“In general, flight projects’ first priority is to fly healthy missions for as cheaply as possible, and are usually based on proven and reliable technologies”.

“On the other end, R&D, although still trying to minimise risks, involves a very different approach: the TRP is a kind of innovation factory, where we are open to experimentation and a certain amount of failure is to be expected.

“But to actually get to a position of flying innovative technologies in turn involves a large amount of testing to prove these new things are really safe and reliable, so there’s really a double role.”  
Monica became involved with what would become Clean Space by overseeing a project for ESA’s General Studies Programme – tasked with investigating innovative ways of working – that examined the subject of environmental sustainability.

“This was around five years ago, one of the first studies on the subject,” Monica recalls. “Sustainability was not yet a live issue for the Agency, but more a feeling that was growing, related to the ethical interests of many people and the evolution of European and worldwide regulations. The idea was to look at the issues arising in a coordinated way.

“Europe is becoming subject to a growing number of environmental regulations. ESA and the space business can, to a certain extent, cope with this thanks to regulatory waivers.

“With Clean Space the aim is to tackle this subject in a more critical, proactive way, and apply a technological point of view, in a way that might actually open up some promising opportunities.

CDF in session

“It’s not really a fancy idea, but quite a down-to-Earth one. For instance, in the area of materials, lead for soldering is being phased out. However, the space industry could still require it, because tin solder without lead can grow harmful ‘whiskers’ in space conditions. So we could get a waiver and be allowed to continue working in this way.

“But we would no longer be able to source such a product on the open market. Supporting such a specific solution would be very costly for what is, in the end, a relatively small industrial sector.

“And, in general, waivers won’t last forever. So there are solid technical and legal reasons we should study these areas and look for less harmful and potentially better-performing alternatives.

“This GSP study carried out the first complete look at the legal and regulatory framework, with the aid of ESA’s Sustainable Development Office. 

Life cycle assessment

This study also opened the door for the first time to considering legal and social issues together with more traditional technical and systems aspects, making use of the Concurrent Design Facility here at ESTEC. That included consideration of the Life Cycle Assessment tool – when is it useful for space projects, and with what data?

“I’m happy to say that most of what can be done we are doing already – space is quite a constrained industry with many regulations, and anything but wasteful.

“However we still need to develop our general awareness further and offer all the technical competencies we can to develop a more targeted approach to clean design.

“The focus is really on technologies since that is what we do best. It’s quite a critical time all over the world – and also a hectic one. Member States and European industry showed a lot of interest at the recent Ministerial Council in the prospect of new technologies and materials which could well prove beneficial economically as well as being the right thing to do.”

Monica is an aerospace engineer by training who participated in the first microgravity parabolic flight open to European students back in 1994. After working in industry for almost ten years she joined ESA a decade ago. 

Last update: 11 September 2014

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