Aeronautica Militare Italiana (the Italian Air Force, ITAF) turned 100 years old this year. Being separated from the Italian Army by a royal decree of March 28, 1923, it is one of the oldest independent air forces in the world. During its history, the ITAF pioneered in many fields, not least the space sector. We can even say that the Italian space adventure started thanks to the genius of its people pursuing the Air Force motto Virtute Siderum Tenus (with value toward the stars).
Italy is reborn from the ashes of World War Two
Following World War II, Italy was constrained by the terms of the peace treaty, which prohibited the construction and acquisition of any form of military equipment from Germany. This restriction remained in effect until 1951. Nevertheless, during this period, interest in missile development was steadily growing. Notably, in the early 1950s, engineer Aurelio Robotti presented the Italian Air Force with a project for creating a missile known as the AR-1.
Italy had to exercise patience until May 9, 1952, before witnessing the historic moment when the first liquid-propelled rocket, the AR-3, lifted off from Italian soil in Val di Lanzo. Following the success of this test, the Italian Air Force promptly ordered 30 experimental rockets.
The International Geophysical Year favored the interest in the space field from July 1957 to December 1958. It was an international project held to increase the knowledge about Earth and the interaction between the Sun and our planet. With this objective in mind, the scientific community focused lot of its efforts on studying the atmosphere and, to reach the higher atmospheric layers, building better rockets was essential.
In the wake of this experience, the Space Research Commission was born in 1959 on the initiative of Edoardo Amaldi, Luigi Broglio and Francesco Giordani. This project also involved the ITAF, being Broglio not only a talented engineer but also an Air Force officer.
The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) was born precisely in 1958 and just two years later, in 1960, thanks to the strong relationship of mutual respect between Broglio and Hugh Dryden (who would be a NASA administrator), an agreement was signed with the Italian Space Research Commission. It involved the purchase of US rockets Nike Cajun for research purposes that would have been launched during January 1961 from the Salto di Quirra military range in Sardinia. This was a clear sign that Italy was the very first European country to take a serious interest in space.
The first lights of the San Marco project
The early 1960s marked a period of growth in Italy, characterized by a multitude of ambitious projects that garnered significant political support. It was within this favorable climate that the space sector experienced rapid development. In 1961, Edoardo Amaldi, also known as Broglio, presented a visionary project to the Italian Council of Ministers, named “San Marco,” which aimed to foster collaboration with NASA. The proposal garnered support from most ministers, primarily because it promised Italy the capability to independently launch rockets, thereby ensuring autonomous access to space.
On the other hand, also US politicians appreciated the project: the supply of the Scout rocket to Italy would have put the realization of a European rocket at a distance in time. The first European carrier able to put into orbit a satellite was the French Diamant in 1965, but we need to wait the 1979 to see the European Space Agency become independent in satellite launches with the rocket Ariane I.
In exchange for the rocket, NASA asked to carry out experiments that could also be of interest to the USA and whose data had to be shared. Many proposals were submitted, one also from Broglio.
Broglio’s experiment appeals to NASA
Broglio’s experiment aimed to know the properties of the higher layers of the atmosphere. These were also the heights at which intercontinental ballistic rockets travel and, knowing information such as atmospheric densities, would have allowed the US Air Force to know the aerodynamic resistance met. Precisely because of its strategic importance, Broglio’s proposal turned out to be the winning one.
To achieve the objective of his experiment, Professor Broglio realized an inertial scale that went down in history with the name of “Bilancia Broglio”. To measure the drag experienced by the shell of the satellite, it was coupled to the inner part with a strain gauge consisting of three springs arranged orthogonally. In this way, the satellite could measure the force acting in all directions. On board, there was also another experiment suitable to study transmission through the atmosphere (the Ionospheric Beacon Experiment).
The satellite was meant to operate between a height of 215 km and 680 km. This elliptic orbit was chosen to allow the calibration of the instrument, in fact, at the apogee, the inertial scale should have measured exactly 0.
Looking for a place to launch from
The agreement to start the organization of the San Marco project was signed on September 5, 1962, in Rome by USA Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Attilio Piccioni. It provided also for the implementation of a launch base.
Broglio’s bold project attracted many scientists. Once the group of scientists was formed, it was time to choose a place suitable for orbital launching.
The very first idea was the Salto di Quirra military range, in Sardinia. It was a natural option since most of the structures necessary for a rocket launch were already present. This range, indeed, had already been used in the past years to launch the first experimental rockets and little work would have been needed to adapt it to space launches. However, when calculating launch trajectories, an important problem arose: used stages could have fallen on residential areas. They had to look for a safer launch point.
Ultimately, the choice fell on Kenya, thanks to its geographical position near the equator and not so far from Italy. The idea was to build a launch base off the Kenyan coast using two platforms like the ones used for oil extraction. Cost for each platform: 800 million lire. It was too much for the project. Fortunately, Professors Broglio and Buongiorno managed to obtain the first platform from NASA, with the only constraint of keeping it efficient, and a second one from ENI thanks to the good relations between Broglio and Enrico Mattei.
The platform from NASA, then called San Marco, was renovated since it was configured as a landing platform for military purposes. On it, to the lower deck, offices were also created, but, before launches, all the personnel were transferred to ENI’s platform, called Santa Rita (the Saint of the impossible), where could safely follow all the operations. To perform the renovation, Broglio obtained from the Italian Air Force the instruments used in Puglia for the Jupiter rockets, which had been decommissioned following the secret agreement between J.F. Kennedy and Nikita Krusciov after the Cuban crisis.
Drawing again from the Jupiter experience, 80 technicians from the former 36th Strategic Interdiction Air Brigade of the Air Force were sent to NASA to be formed. At the end of 1962, the Santa Rita platform left for Kenya where it arrived on February 14, 1963, after some vicissitudes that almost brought to its loss. However, the challenges had not concluded yet. It was, in fact, the very first time that someone was trying to build a launch platform in the middle of the sea, and engineers had to solve completely new problems.
With this, we conclude the first part of this journey to discover the early steps of Italian space exploration. Stay tuned for the second part on our Blog. We will delve into the adventure of the first launches and the future developments of the Broglio Space Center.