Interview with Ersilia Vaudo from European Space Agency

March 10, 2017


Miss Vaudo, MSc in physics, is the Head of the policy office at the European Space Agency. ESA is one the most successful and important European institution, and one of the few examples of true cooperation and coordination among EU states. The agency has had many important results over the years. The most recent one was landing a robot on a comet for the first time in history. Miss Vaudo has been working for the agency since 1991, so she had the possibility to be a part of it while it was growing and achieving success after success. After she held a conference at Bocconi, where she talked about the role of her agency in the modern world and about the challenges that await us all, EG contacted her for an interview.




You have a MSc in Physics, but you hold a managerial position at the moment: how did you cope with the transition between these two very different environments?


After I finished high school, I chose to study physics as I felt the need to shift my own balance, to face situations far from everyday experience, like general relativity or quantum physics. I knew that studying cosmology and infinite spaces would offer me a calmer dimension, at least from an existential point of view. I really loved my physics studies and cosmology. But I didn’t felt at ease in a lab, so I decided to broaden my horizons and in 1988 I was awarded with an opportunity to take a PhD in political economics. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish it. In fact, only a few months had passed from my thesis discussion when ESA called me for an interview. They were intrigued by my multi-disciplinary curriculum and offered me for a job in Paris, where strategical and political issues are discussed. The European Space Agency has been the ideal place to reap the benefits of what I have learnt in my past studies. Still to this day, working there gives me the possibility to reconcile my passions in an open-minded environment, permeated by science and amazement.


Did you feel a striking difference between the Italian and the international context?


I’ve never worked in Italy but the international context is pretty different from the Italian one. Every day at ESA, colleagues coming from 22 different countries with different backgrounds, cultures and mother tongues find themselves working together. Each and every one of them is pushed to think differently and outside the box by the virtue of making their own original contribution, and to change their convictions and ideas when necessary. I do believe this is the real added value of this kind of working experience.


What will be the role of private firms like SpaceX focused on space travels in your sector?


The times we live in, where incredible technological advancements and ever-changing economic scenarios rule supreme, call for change and adaption. This is especially true for such a peculiar sector as the space one. The major shift we can observe today is the rise of extremely relevant private actors, tempted by the enormous potential of the space and digital economy boom. After all, space can be defined as the Wild West of our century, able to attract brilliant entrepreneurs and new explorers, looking not only for prestige, but also for considerable economic returns. SpaceX is undoubtedly, along with the so called GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple), one of the best examples of this new generation of actors, who have the possibility to change the rules of the game through their visionary projects. Thanks to their huge investments in the space industry, private actors are actually replacing governments in many different facets. Governments themselves, to react to these new challenges, sometimes have to rethink their strategy by establishing new procedures and new relations with the space industry. In this sense privates have really assumed a relevant role, pushing governments and space agencies to rethink their vision and goals. This is something that NASA, for example, has already been doing. It pursues not only a return to the Moon or the human exploration of Mars, but also the development and the expansion of the USA economic sphere in the solar system, involving new industries and also fostering economic growth.


Your organization is extremely different from the two major player at the global level; NASA and CNSA (Chinese National Space Agency), from a structural point of view. They are both directly linked to their governments while ESA is not. What are the advantages and the challenges of this situation, also in relation with other agencies?


ESA, to be precise, is an intergovernmental organization. As of today, 22 States are members, and not all of them are part of EU. As such, ESA actually has a unique nature that makes it different from all the other National Agencies at a global level. NASA directly depends from the USA government, which sets its budget and objectives. ESA instead is tied to 22 different States with different, and sometimes diverging, interests, but who nonetheless manage to cooperate to achieve what would be impossible on their own. It is a great privilege to witness every day the value of cooperation that overcomes national interests and allows ESA to realize unique space projects. This is the real strength of ESA, both now and in the past: being able to lay out and devise a space policy that satisfies the common interests of all the members, in order to strengthen them and make them more competitive on a global scale.


The international situation is very tense right now. Do you believe that this new wave of nationalism is going to damage ESA’s activities?


The comeback of nationalism is undoubtedly a factor that has the potential to endanger cooperation among States. Nevertheless, as ESA is an intergovernmental organization, it does not require any member State to forfeit its sovereignty. Every nation can choose where and how much it is willing to invest with the ultimate goal of creating opportunities to benefit its own economy and society. We should also not forget that space related activities are strongly tied to national prestige, as much today as 50 years ago (in this sense it is interesting to observe the impact astronauts have on the media). Moreover, ESA was built on the idea of cooperation that is still attracting new members. We should remember that when ESA was born it already had its own currency, the ”Accounting Unit”, long before the Euro was introduced. This shows that cooperation and integration are a part of our members’ DNA.


The space race helped the USA to win the cold war, do you believe that it may help to save the EU, even if ESA is not directly tied to it?


At a meeting in Luzern in December, the ministers responsible for space policies clearly supported and approved the vision of ESA’s General Director, stating their commitment to “United Space for Europe”. While ESA is actually an organization independent from the EU, it should not be forgotten that 20 of its members -19, after Brexit will have occurred- are also EU members. This does not matter when the issue is space. Space missions contribute more than any other activity to amplify the sense of belonging to Europe. The landing of the robot Philae on a comet 500 millions of kilometers away from Earth was followed with deep emotions and pride by everyone in Europe and it contributed to make us all feel like a single, huge family. Europe was the first one to arrive on a comet. This is an amazing result and really envied by many. For example, this is a tweet that became viral after Philae landed.




(the interview was translated from Italian by the author)




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