It is reasonable to believe that the evolution of the aviation industry led to the beginnings of the aerospace sector, considering the close relationship between them.
As in other parts of the industrialized world, the formation of the Italian space industry began with a nucleus of aeronautical companies which possessed the know-how which would be essential for its successful development.
History tells us that the aeronautical industry in the Turin area made it possible to begin and then expand the entrepreneurial capacity of the area bordered by the municipalities of Turin and Collegno, where in 1916 Engineer Pomilio founded the company that bore his name, and built the adjacent airfield (now known as Torino-Aeritalia), leading to the creation of one of the major European aerospace locations where today Thales Alenia Space, Altec, Asi, Leonardo-Finmeccanica and other fine companies such as Microtecnica, Avio Aero, etc. in addition to the Polytechnic University di Torino operate in cooperation with each other.
Given the complexity of the industry, which locally numbers among its products such things as habitable systems for the International Space Station, satellites, interplanetary probes, scientific experiments and re-entry systems, not to mention equipment and ground-based support centers, the development has involved numerous skills, even greater than those required by its aeronautical cousin, leading to the formation of a center of Italian excellence in high technology and innovation.
Much of the industrial element of the space industry began with a spin-off from FIAT Aviazione, which became Aeritalia, an aeronautical company within the IRI-Finmeccanica group, and then Alenia following a merger with Selenia and the creation of Alenia Spazio. This has grown to become a key component of the European space industry and to form in 2007 the Italian-French joint venture Thales Alenia Space, European leader in space systems and among the top aerospace companies in the world.
This has taken place thanks to the European and national structures to address and support space activities, which have increased in parallel.
Two European space organizations - ELDO (European Launcher Development Organization) and ESRO (European Space Research Organization) - were set up in 1962. ELDO’s objective was to design and build a multi-stage rocket launcher, and ESRO was tasked with building the first European artificial satellites. In 1973, the two organizations were merged to form the European Space Agency (ESA).
In 1979, Italy launched its National Spatial Plan (PSN) under the direction of the CNR under Professor Luciano Guerriero. The plan went into effect in 1980 and was funded with 200 billion lire in the period 1979-1983 and 352 billion for the period from 1982 to 1986. In 1988 the psn became the Italian Space Agency (ASI) managed by murst (Ministry of University Scientific and Technological Research), which from then onwards has managed the Italian space programs in collaboration with European (ESA) and international Agencies (NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, etc.), keeping Italy in a prominent position within the international network of Space leadership.
If however, we want to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, it is necessary to reconstruct the history of the Torinese excellences which explains, among other things, the reason for their permanence in the area.
We must therefore reset our memory to the 1920’s when, at the Turin Polytechnic, particularly important research was being carried out by Prof. Filippo Burzio, who in 1915 had become the deputy to Professor Modesto Panetti, founder in 1912 of the “Aeronautical laboratory” of the Polytechnic which was then located at the Castle of Valentino.
Filippo Burzio (who by the way was the director of the newspaper “La Stampa” from 1945-1948, the year of his death) distinguished himself as a scientist in the field of ballistics and aerodynamics.
In the early 1920’s he conducted tests aimed at determining the longitudinal stability of aircraft in the wind tunnel of the Polytechnic, using an instrument called an aerodynamic torsion pendulum, designed by Prof. Panetti.
Later, in a study published in 1920 entitled “Experimental research on the aerodynamic regime of projectiles”, he was the first to demonstrate the relationship between Ballistics and Aerodynamics.
This work would have applications in the study of the stability of a missile during its trajectory.
Theodore von Kármán
The 1940’s thus saw considerable progress in the studies towards the construction of an aircraft able to break the sound barrier, and in this regard, the contribution of a famous mathematician of the University of Turin, Francesco Tricomi, must be highlighted.
Tricomi (who later became President of the Turin Academy of Science) was called in 1925 to teach at the University of Turin, where he also continued to pursue his research.
Recognition of the importance of Tricomi’s studies came only twenty years later when in a publication called On the fundamentals of high-speed aerodynamics von Kármán stated that “… the mathematical formulation of the transonic flow problem is through a type of nonlinear differential equation, known as a ’Tricomi Equation’”.
1947 was an important year for aviation. On October 14, USAF Capt. Chuck Yeager made the first supersonic flight at the controls of experimental BELL X-1 aircraft. The success of the first supersonic flight made the Tricomi equation ever more fundamentally important.
Experimental Bell X-1 aircraft
Mother ship Boeing EB-50A being lowered with hydraulic jacks onto Bell X-1 No. 3
Also worthy of mention is the institution by the National Research Council (CNR) of the Research Center for fluid dynamics at the Turin Polytechnic in the 1950’s. Under the direction of Prof. Panetti, this conducted important research in the field of aero and gas dynamics.
To improve the ability to study related phenomena, new wind tunnels were designed and built. These came into operation in the renovated Turin Polytechnic in the early 1960’s.
The first Italian jet aircraft was the FIAT G.80, a two-seater trainer designed by Prof. Gabrielli, powered by a De Havilland “Goblin”. It was built in Turin (Aeritalia) and assembled at the military base of Amendola (Foggia). This made its first flight on December 9, 1951, flown by the company test pilot, Vittore Catella.
During the 1950’s, in his capacity as Director of FIAT Aviation, Gabrielli opened a number of important plants in the Turin area such as the center for the gas turbines, near the Sangone, the avionics centre at Caselle and a wind tunnel at Aeronautica d’Italia (later Aeritalia).
From 1952 to 1954 Gabrielli organized courses on gas turbines for aeronautical propulsion applications.
These courses were conducted by lecturers from the Polytechnic and FIAT technicians, including Eng. Ugo Sacerdote, one of the pioneers of the Torinese space industry.
1952 saw the creation of the nato aerospace research group known as AGARD (Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development) in which Gabrielli, thanks to his friendship with von Kármán (who was Head of AGARD), was able to ensure that Italy participated in international aerospace research.
At the end of the 1960s, the government “think tank” proposed integrating the largest privately held group in the sector (FIAT Aviazione) with the public sector. The integration was aimed at providing work in Southern Italy through new research and production facilities.
The project began on 1 January 1973 with the formation of Aeritalia, a joint venture between FIAT and two of the iri group companies controlled by Finmeccanica: Aerfer and Salmoiraghi. The company assets were held equally by the public and private components until 1975, when the FIAT share was entirely acquired by IRI via Finmeccanica.
In the autumn of 1971 an American delegation from NASA, headed by Dr. Charles W. Matthews (Manned Space Flight Manager), made a series of visits to the European companies collaborating in ELDO projects, including FIAT Aviazione. The meetings focussed on the Space Shuttle program, which nasa had launched following the spectacular lunar exploits of the Apollo missions.
In Turin, the American delegation was received by senior management, including Prof. Gabrielli, Director of FIAT Aviazione, and Engineer Ugo Sacerdote, Head of the Special Technical Studies department, one member of which was Engineer Ernesto Vallerani, destined to become a leading exponent of future Italian space programs and to whom the exponential growth of the Turin site must be credited.
Following the satisfactory outcome of a number of inspections, NASA decided to commission the construction of a pressurized laboratory, referred to as “Spacelab” in Europe to be carried aloft as paid cargo by the Space Shuttle.
Simultaneously with the start of the Spacelab program, the ESRO organization was transformed into ESA (European Space Agency). Aeritalia was formally contituted around that same time (January 1973).
Crew members of the Spacelab-3 in mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger
But the site specified by the Government for the Italian share of Spacelab activities was Napoli and not Turin, despite the fact that, as mentioned above, the FIAT component of Aeritalia boasted experience in the space industry since the 1960s thanks to its involvement in ELDO and ESRO. The government had clearly underestimated the level of engineering and manufacturing expertise needed to promptly operate in an area that would have been a significant challenge even for a company with cutting-edge skills like the former FIAT Aviazione of Turin.
ESA experts were called in to resolve this misunderstanding, and after conducting a series of inspections of the Neapolitan aerospace facilities, they concluded that transferring the Spacelab development to Naples would be an unacceptable decision (April 1974).
It was thus the team from Turin, led by Professor Vallerani, which successfully undertook the challenges of human space flight for Italy, a watershed for industrial activities.
Aeritalia participated in the request for tender as part of the MESH consortium, led by the German organisation ERNO, and was assigned the design of the structure and the thermal control system of the pressurized module, working on this from the project initiation in 1974 until the launch, which took place on November 28, 1983.
Loading the MPLM module Leonardo at Torino Caselle airport into a Beluga cargo, which will take it to NASA’ s Kennedy Space Center
Engineer Ernesto Vallerani graduated in Aeronautical Engineering from the Milan Polytechnic and obtained a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, with specialization in Supersonic Aerodynamics.
On his arrival in Turin at the “Special Technical Studies” department of FIAT Aviazione, Vallerani carried out research on the flow of heat affecting the surface of a body at supersonic velocities and became lecturer in Aerothermodynamics at the Turin Polytechnic.
In 1973, when the Special Studies Technical Department changed its name to Aeritalia Space Sector, the by now Professor Vallerani became head of the Spacelab project research group, the European manned space lab that would go into orbit for the first time, carried by the Space Shuttle, on November 28, 1983.
It was the beginning of an enterprise that would see the Turin plant of Aeritalia (today Thales-Alenia Space) acquire, thanks to its technicians and scientists, international renown in the construction of manned space modules.
Professor Vallerani later became President of Alenia Spazio, and was honoured with the prestigious “Wernher Von Braun Award” by the German DGLR, and laid the groundwork for the definitive recognition of Turin’s role in human spaceflight with the MPLM program (logistics module for the Space Station), the forerunner of all subsequent achievements.
In 2005, Prof. Vallerani launched and is currently Educational Project Manager of the Turin Polytechnic’s International MSc. course SEEDS (Space Exploration and Development Systems).
In the mid-70s, research towards the realization of the Italian telecommunications satellite SIRIO (Satellite Italiano per la Ricerca Industriale Operativa) also continued. This was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral American polygon August 25, 1977 and went into geostationary orbit. Aeritalia designed and built the thermal control system under the responsibility of Eng. Sacerdote.
The study of space systems at the then Aeritalia Space Division was further extended to: the structural elements of Ariane; to the structure and thermal control of telecommunications satellites (such as Olympus, and a succession of other national satellites); to the disciplines of attitude control and mission profiles, becoming the springboard for successive important developments and highlighting the systemic role of Alenia Spazio and Thales Alenia Space in the definition and development of highly complex scientific missions.
The operational startup of the Italian Space Agency in 1989 had an extremely positive influence on the market prospects of the Piedmontese aero space industry.
1990 – The Advent of Alenia Spazio
During the 1970s and 80s, Aeritalia’s space sector began working with Professor Giuseppe Colombo in the development of the “Tethered Satellite” devised by him. The project, born out of the collaboration between Colombo and Prof. Mario Grossi of mit, was called “Tethered” since the satellite, attached by a cable to the Space Shuttle, was to be “soft-ejected” from the shuttle and allowed to run out for about 20 km, producing electricity by the effect of the cable cutting through the Earth’s magnetic field.
Professor Colombo, who died in 1984, never saw the two flights made by his creation in 1992, with the first Italian esa astronaut, Engineer Franco Malerba, and in 1996 carrying Italian astronauts Umberto Guidoni, responsible for the satellite experiment, and Maurizio Cheli, a Torinese by adoption and Air Force pilot, with the role of Mission Specialist and Flight Engineer.
The second flight experiment to generate electricity was so successful that the cable melted locally due to heat generated by the considerable power (about 0,5A at 3,500 volts) concentrated by defective insulation.
This experiment was a complete success in that it fully demonstrated the viability of the theory with an Italian-designed satellite, built in Turin, in collaboration with NASA.
Finmeccanica, the owner of Aeritalia Spazio after having acquired the FIAT share, and already the owner of Selenia, had complete control of the two major Italian companies in the space sector. An industrial concentration process was therefore initiated through the merger of the two companies to form Alenia Spazio, officially launched on January 1, 1990. The mission of Alenia Spazio in the Turin site became orbital infrastructures, scientific satellites and reentry vehicles (capsules and modules) derived from the preceding Aeritalia activities, but also continued to provide thermo-mechanical subsystems for the satellites built at the ex-Selenia factory in Rome.
With the intention of increasing the company size to enable it to keep pace with its major international competitors, Finmeccanica pursued a strategy of alliances culminating in 2005 with the formation of two joint ventures with its partner Alcatel.
Alenia Space merged with Alcatel, becoming Alcatel Alenia Space, a company of manufacturing vocation of which Alcatel held 67% and Finmeccanica 33%.
The alliance with Alcatel saw further developments in 2007, when Alcatel’s space “branch” was sold to Thales, direct heir of Thompson-CSF, hence the current company name of Thales Alenia Space.
This new Thales Alenia Space is the largest space enterprise in Italy and occupies a leading position in the international market.
In summary, the programs of systemistic high-profile in the Turin site’s curriculum comprising Alenia Space / Alcatel Alenia / Thales Alenia Space are quite considerable.
COLUMBUS and NODO 2, pressurized modules for the International Space Station (ISS)
The technological masterpieces of pressurized technology for the human exploration of space have long been the Columbus and MPLM programs (Multi Purpose Logistic Module), pressurized modules for the International Space Station (ISS), one of the most grandiose enterprises in history involving collaboration between ESA, NASA, Russian Canadian and Japanese space agencies.
Columbus and MPLM were the forerunners of numerous other pressurized elements delivered to the ISS by Thales Alenia Space from Turin, including: node 2 and node 3, complex jointed hubs for materials and crew of the station, the Cupola from which astronauts can observe space, PMM (Permanent Multi Purpose), the pressurized module of the European ATV (Automatic Transfer Vehicle) supply system for the ISS, the Cygnus module of the American Orbital Sciences supply system.
Approximately half of the Space Station’s habitable modules were thus produced at the Turin site.
GOCE, an ultra-low Earth-orbit satellite, dynamically
But at the same time, the Turin company has not ceased to be engaged in other high profile systemistic roles for the implementation of: