Despite the not-always adequate coverage provided by the Italian media, the European Rosetta Mission, which carried out in the last days the first landing on a comet in history, kept the whole world holding its breath and has been an extraordinary scientific, technological and organizational success. When initially proposed by ESA – the European Space Agency – the aim of the mission was practically science fiction. But thanks to the cooperation of thousands of scientists from tens of research bodies and to an effective partnership networks with state-of-the-art aerospace industries, the ambitious goal has been achieved. Many observed that the scientific way of blending knowledge, expertise and know-how that brought to the Rosetta’s enormous success could set an example for an effective organizational model of the Europe-system.
And Italy? We discussed about that with Giovanni Bignami, President of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF).
What about Italy, in this context?
Rosetta shows that scientific research, also basic research, is essential for growing and achieving great results. Therefore I violently disagree with the government when the idea of “made in Italy” is only related to “food & fashion”. I try to point out that fundamental science pushes both technology and industry to find those innovations that, on the one hand, qualify them and, on the other one, create jobs, and above all improve the quality of our lives in the long term. I feel I have the obligation to highlight this chain effect to our politicians, but I am struggling, as it is a political effect by nature.
Why is it hard to communicate this message?
With all eyes pointed on Rosetta, many people wonder: “Why are we doing it? Why are we spending so much money to send a probe on a comet?” But I am sure that they, too, take pictures with their mobiles. Well, their cameras work with a sensor called CCD, a technology invented by astronomers. The Nobel Prize for Physics went this year to the inventors of blue LED: a technology born within theoretical researches. Today we all use LED: in Italy is often common to ignore that scientific research can provide great economic returns.
What can Rosetta teach us from this point of view?
With Rosetta we “forced” the Italian and European industries to do things that were thought to be impossible. It seemed impossible to intercept a comet travelling 20 kilometres per second, 500 kilometres far from Earth, but thanks to the great motivation given by scientific research we were able to do it. It was a great success also for our INAF and ASI (Italian Space Agency), but it is not in the interest of scientists only, soon or later all this will have technological and economical returns for everyone. This is what Rosetta can teach us: that science produces innovation and that it lets emerge the best of the nations involved.
Can we expect a greater awareness from Italian politics in the next years?
I really don’t know. The direction is decided by the political sphere, but we also need to teach citizens to respect scientific culture. And this also goes through communication activities.