Anthea Comellini.

An interview with Anthea Comellini, the new ESA reserve astronaut

We had the incredible opportunity to interview Anthea Comellini, one of the two Italian reserve astronauts selected by the European Space Agency in 2022.

Born in 1992 in Chiari, Italy, Anthea is a new reserve astronaut in the European Astronaut Corps of 2022. From her education in Italy and France to her Ph.D., Comellini indeed has an inspiring career. We tried to analyze what she studied, and why she chose to apply for the astronaut’s selection.

Anthea Comellini.
Anthea Comellini. Courtesy of Stefano G. Pavesi:

Q: Good morning, Anthea! Thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us a bit about yourself for those who may not be familiar with your background?

A: My name is Anthea Comellini, and I’m 30 years old. I was born in Chiari, which is located in the province of Brescia. My interest in the space industry started when I was 19 years old, and I enrolled in the Aerospace Engineering course at Politecnico di Milano for my Bachelor’s degree. After that, I pursued a Master’s degree in Space Engineering and participated in a Double Degree program in Toulouse, France.

The course in France was slightly different from Italy; instead of two years for a Master’s degree, they had three. Hence, I spent the last two years of my Master’s in France. I concluded with my final internship at Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, working in the research and development department as a mission analysis engineer.

While finishing my internship, my director offered me a doctorate in collaboration with Thales Alenia Space, which had a fixed-term contract of three years. The doctorate involved studying vision-based autonomous navigation, focusing on optical sensors such as cameras for autonomous rendezvous with spacecraft.

After finishing my doctorate in 2020, there weren’t many job opportunities available, so I applied for a course in flight dynamics engineering at the European Space Operations Centre (ESA). I was fortunate to be selected as a contractor and worked as a navigation and orbit determination engineer for interplanetary missions for about a year and a half. During this time, I worked on missions to the Lagrange points L2, such as Gaia, and also contributed to the preparation of Euclid. Later, I worked on Bepi Colombo, specifically on the Flyby on Venus, and the second with Venus and Mercury.

While I followed other missions like Mars Express and ExoMars, this summer, I missed a bit of the guidance, navigation, and control side. Hence, when Thales Alenia Space offered me a position to return to where I completed my doctorate, I accepted it.

The European Space Agency has chosen 17 new astronaut candidates from more than 22 500 applicants from across its Member States. In this new 2022 class of ESA astronauts are five career astronauts, 11 members of an astronaut reserve and one astronaut with a disability.
ESA Astronaut class of 2022. Credits: ESA – S. Corvaja


Q: How has your academic path, including your double degree programs, benefited you both professionally and personally? Do you have any advice for students considering a similar path, including choices you would or wouldn’t make?

A: I would make the same choices again. From day one, I recognized the value of the education provided by Politecnico di Milano, and I’m glad I never doubted it. When I was finishing my undergraduate studies, many of my peers decided to pursue a Master’s Degree abroad, but I chose to finish my studies at Politecnico di Milano and specialize there. Then I sought a Double Degree program.

It’s tough to spend so much time with books, but that time pays off. I realize this each time I approach a new subject. GNC and mission analysis are highly multidisciplinary, so you need to understand the differences between, for example, electrical and chemical propulsion and recall quickly the equations in your head. You may not remember everything, but you have studied it so thoroughly that you can recover the information quickly.

The European Space Agency has chosen 17 new astronaut candidates from more than 22 500 applicants from across its Member States. In this new 2022 class of ESA astronauts are five career astronauts, 11 members of an astronaut reserve and one astronaut with a disability.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher and ESA reserve Astronauts Andrea Patassa and Anthea Comellini chatting. Credits: ESA – S. Corvaja

Italian engineers and students are recognized for this level of knowledge, even in the industry. The Double Degree program opened up many opportunities for me because the French teaching system is entirely different. It’s not that one is better or worse, but they complement each other. When you see something from only one perspective, you think that’s all there is.  But you can gain a more comprehensive understanding when you consider other perspectives. For example, what I learned in France helped me put the theoretical knowledge I gained in Italy into practice.

My advice is to trust the education at Politecnico di Milano but also be open to experiences abroad. Frankly, I would pursue the Double Degree program a thousand times, even if it means an extra year.


Q: If we move away from the stereotypes in the engineering or scientific field, what do you think could be the possible applications for humanities subjects?

A: As someone who’s new to this profession, it’s hard for me to give a concrete answer, but I can tell you that the European Space Agency is actively seeking individuals with a humanities background for positions such as internships and YGTs. These positions may involve communication, which is crucial in reaching out to people and attracting talent in various fields to strengthen the workforce.

Furthermore, space law is a significant topic that requires laws and guidelines, and therefore individuals with legal expertise are in demand. Ultimately, a passion for space is essential for anyone who wants to work in this sector, as it’s a common thread among those who end up here. Working on any project requires passion and dedication, and it’s inspiring to see this in the people around me.

From the left: the Esa astronauts Luca Parmitano and Anthea Comellini, the ASI president Giorgio Saccoccia, Andrea Patassa and Samantha Cristoforetti. Credits: ESA
From the left: ESA astronauts Luca Parmitano and Anthea Comellini, ASI President Giorgio Saccoccia, Andrea Patassa and Samantha Cristoforetti. Credits: ESA

Q: Final question: What are the critical aspects that still need to be addressed to establish ourselves on the moon as an operational base, and what are your ambitions and expectations for these programs?

A: I would defer to Luca Parmitano and Samantha Cristoforetti, who have more expertise on the subject. However, the ultimate goal of the Artemis program is to establish a sustainable presence on the moon, which would require in-situ resource utilization to obtain water, oxygen, and other necessary resources. We cannot bring everything from Earth, so we need to optimize our use of resources obtained on the moon. This is still a work in progress, and it will take time and patience to achieve this goal. However, I am optimistic about our ability to do so.

Q: We certainly hope so too. Speaking of the moon landing, what do you think about the technology they had at that time that allowed them to put people on the moon? Many people wonder why it’s so difficult to go back now if we were able to do it in the 60s.

A: It’s important to note that the level of risk accepted during the Apollo missions was much higher than what we accept now. Additionally, the Artemis program aims to do things differently by creating habitats and establishing a more permanent presence on the moon, rather than simply landing and returning with some rocks. This is a more complex goal that will require more advanced technology and careful planning.


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