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Paolo Ferri

40 years on the edge of Space

The SpaceInfo Club had the huge pleasure to interview Paolo Ferri, who’s been working at the European Space Agency for almost forty years. He started his career at ESA inside Spacecraft Operations for Eureca Mission and then became the Operations Manager for Rosetta Mission. After that he became responsible for mission operations preparation and execution for all ESA missions to the solar system as Head of the Solar and Planetary Mission Division. In the last eight years in the Agency he was Head of the Mission Operations Department and concluded his path at ESA as a Senior Advisor. He is now member of multiple advisory boards, lecturer and Chair of the System Engineering Qualification (Space) Review Board at Airbus Defense and Space. 

To sum up: for sure he doesn’t need any presentation. Here is what we had the pleasure to ask him, have a good read!

Can you share some key highlights from your tenure as the Head of Operations at ESA? What were some of the most memorable moments or achievements during your career at the Agency?

In 40 years work in the field of Space Operations there where many highlights, as you can imagine. I’ll to talk about two missions which were very important in my career: Eureca and Rosetta. 

Eureca was the first mission I worked on when I moved from science operations to mission operations, back in 1986. It was special for two reasons, first of all because it was launched and retrieved by two Space Shuttle missions. This allowed me to work in direct contact with the world of NASA’s human spaceflight. I was the deputy spacecraft operations manager, and I was also in charge of the Operations Interface to NASA. So I travelled several times per year to Houston, to the Johnson Space Center, where NASA had the mission control centre for the Space Shuttle program. 

In those times, the Johnson Space Center was still living the post-Apollo times. The Main Control Room was practically still identical to the one I had seen in TV as a child, and a big Saturn V rocket lied next to the entrance gate, in full size. I worked with legendary flight directors, learned the mission control rules and terminology directly from those who had invented them, worked in tight contact with the astronauts. It was a marvelous experience. 

There is a second reason why Eureca was so special: it was a very innovative spacecraft. Its avionics concept was totally new, it was the first one to implement the concepts of packet telemetry and tele-commanding. The spacecraft was however also very unstable and suffered many failures during its short flight. For these two reasons Eureca was an incredible school for a young operations engineer like me. Every day I made a new experience and learned something new. But it was also a very hard time for me and my family: over the last months of the preparation and during the flight I worked every day extremely long hours, including most weekends. But I survived, and this experience was fundamental for my future career.

The second mission I want to mention is of course Rosetta. It was the first (and still the only one) mission in the history of spaceflight to rendezvous with a comet’s nucleus, and to land on it. I worked on Rosetta for two decades, starting in 1996 when I was nominated spacecraft operations manager, then moving on through the launch in 2004, becoming flight director in 2006, and then continuing to work on it after becoming head of the operations department in 2013, until its end in September 2016. 

Rosetta was a fantastic, unique mission. At the beginning, Europe and ESA had very limited experience with interplanetary missions, and no infrastructure to operate probes in deep space. We had to build most things from scratch, learning a lot from NASA, in particular from the colleagues of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But many things were totally new, and we had to invent them ourselves, such as the tools and concepts needed to navigate and operate in the proximity of the comet nucleus.

The most memorable moments of Rosetta were for sure the wake-up of the spacecraft after 2.5 years of hibernation in deep space on 20th January 2014, and the three days in which Philae, our lander module, survived and operated after landing onto the surface of the nucleus. The first event was the tensest of my professional life: waiting for 45 minutes for a radio signal from Rosetta, after 2.5 years of silence. A signal that arrived late and made the waiting for it a torture. The 64 hours spent on the comet were like a surreal adventure. We hardly slept in those days, and lived as if it was us working on the comet, not Philae. 

Rosetta was not only a historical and very successful  mission. It was also the start of the interplanetary adventure for ESA. Thanks to the infrastructure we designed and developed, to the expertise we built and the experiences we made, today ESA is flying missions to the Sun, to Mercury, to Mars and even to Jupiter. And the operations leaders of these missions are all coming from the Rosetta team.

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Images Credits: ESA/J. Mai


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