Italy is an international protagonist in space: an interview with cosmonaut Walter Villadei

(To Antonio Vecchio)

We met him in Bologna, during a conference addressed to high school students to promote the joint initiative of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education, University and Scientific Research (MIUR), aimed at designing an experiment to bring on board the international space station.

42 years, 186 cm in height for 83 kg of weight, tight in the blue flight suit, now known to the general public for the recent achievements of his colleagues Parmitano and Cristoforetti (but the list of our astronauts is much longer), Walter Villadei, Roman, a senior Air Force officer and aerospace engineer, fully responds to the current image of the cosmonaut.

What surprises you, however, is not the passion for everything that does, natural, almost due in those who make a choice of life so out of the ordinary, but the ill-concealed pleasure of transmitting it, a peculiar ability to contagious, to make the other participations of a world to the most unknown. So you come to watch 200 boys with wide eyes, in a room packed with improbable, while they listen to talk about space explorations, life on board the international station and opportunities provided by scientific experimentation.

All told in a simple and direct language, with continuous references to the history of the flight, when it all began, and then the brothers Wright, our Douhet and Baracca, whose rampant horse, famous to most for the well-known car brand, still shines today in the regiment's emblem Piedmont Cavalry (2 °) of Villa Opicina (TS), the army department in which the great Asso served during the First World War.

In his narration there is not only the taste of science, but something less defined, yet equally perceptible: it is a sense of the adventure of Salgarian memory; it is the challenge, the thrill of looking at the unknown, in the constant human yearning to move beyond the "limes" of knowledge and thus gain space for knowledge.

Walter Villadei, how do we become cosmonauts?

We become cosmonauts following a specific training path; the cosmonaut one is a process that lasts at least two years for the acquisition of the qualification, obtained at Star City in Russia, in the training center bearing the name of Yurij Gagarin, and then continues with a later stage of advanced training that makes us ready to face a mission. The path, however, was born much earlier: the Air Force has invested in a project within the aerospace and therefore is increasingly aware of this dimension that is expanding the capabilities of the Armed Forces.

Not only the aeronautical component, therefore, but also the spatial component in a dual role: the space as an environment from which we receive services that are enablers for our systems. But, at the same time, also an environment of technological transformation and experimentation. It is in this sense that in the 2008, the Italian Air Force (AM) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) have signed a cooperation agreement for cooperation in the field of human flight, and it was at that time that I was sent as the first aerospace engineer at Star City in Russia to begin training.

In this sector the AM has different skills, certainly in the field of pilots - remember Cheli, Vittori - but also in the field of space medicine thanks to qualified medical colleagues always in Star City to support the cosmonauts during the missions; only one engineering component was missing.

And this is the context that has generated this path, decidedly new: we are the first Armed Force that has qualified personnel in the specific sector, and, in Europe, the only ones who have formed an astronaut in an exclusively national context. All this to support the national strategy on the various tables where there is an industry that invests in the programs in which we participate.

As part of your career path, did you feel a country system behind you?

Absolutely yes, it was fundamental. I have a great appreciation towards the Defense and the Air Force for this project that involves me, but at the same time also the sense of responsibility, not only for being part of this project, but also for being the architect in the contribute to the realization of the particular path. Personally (at the moment he holds a position of staff within the General Staff of the Air Force, ed) I also follow other programs of the Armed Force in the space sector, putting together the astronaut's skills with those of the national programs.

In particular, the Defense - space is in fact a strongly inter-force domain, although for historical reasons with an important aeronautical characterization - it is investing to become more and more actor within the national strategy of the country in the aerospace sector, so as to support national interests in contexts also extended, therefore international, where the logic of the programs is decided.

A national presence in the field of science that - I seem to understand - is very respectable towards our natural competitors in the European field.

The Italian presence in science and technology is of absolute prominence: it has always been and still is today. The international space station has a segment, the international one, which was created for the 40% from Italy. We were the third country (then the third aeronautics) in the world (after USA and USSR ed) to launch a satellite in December 1964; which has assured, in the space sector, a constant presence since the 60 years. We are the third contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA), the only ones to have a bilateral agreement with NASA. We therefore have an industrial and technological competence that allows us, if we manage to maintain a coherent strategy and policy, and set some objectives, to play an important role in the more general international scenario.

Upcoming commitments?

In this period, around Italy to disclose the joint initiative of the Ministry of Defense and MIUR, called "Space to your future". We consider it extremely important to bring young people closer to the world of Defense and the Air Force, but also to provide them with stimuli that allow us to look at space as a professional and human opportunity.

For the future we will see ...