In the first part of this journey, we talked about how Professor Luigi Broglio and the Italian Air Force started the San Marco project collaborating with NASA. In this second part will be retraced the stages that led to the first launches, up to the present day, trying to imagine what the future of the Luigi Broglio Space Center in Kenya could be.
The dress rehearsal
Simultaneously with the implementation of the base, at Wallops Island the first part of the project started with two attempts of sub-orbital launch between April and August 1963, the first of which failed. The following year other sub-orbital launches took place, this time from the Santa Rita platform instead, confirming the feasibility of the project.
Finally, on December 14, 1964, the orbital launch happened from Wallops Island, making Italy the fourth country to have a satellite in orbit and the third to fully control the launching operations. The Italian technicians managed all the operations to put the San Marco 1 into orbit and it was the first time that a nation different from the USA and URSS succeeded in doing this. The launch was perfect, with only one flaw: an error in the calculations caused the rocket to escape antennas installed in Sicily for the occasion.
It’s showtime for Italy
Between March and May 1966, the San Marco platform traveled from Italy to Kenya. It became the place where rockets were launched, making Santa Rita the place where the control room was located. The same year works began to build the ground base to monitor satellites and operations.
In March 1967, the US delivered the Scout carrier to the San Marco platform and, from Rome, on board an Italian Air Force airplane, the satellite San Marco 2 arrived. The moment was getting closer and closer. In mid-April, the system testing began. To attend the historical launch, many NASA people arrived. On the 26th of April, the countdown began early in the morning.
Everything proceeded regularly until shortly before launch when some problems occurred. Despite these, at 11:06 a.m. the rocket took off and entered an orbit of 216 km as perigee and 804 km as apogee. This success qualified the Italian base in Kenya to launch rockets, opening Italy its own door to space.
International fame fuels the project
Despite achieving this ambitious goal, numerous problems began to emerge, especially in the economic field. To address some of those problems, NASA decided to launch from the floating base some small satellites, repaying Rome University, which managed the project, for the launch costs, granting survival of the base until the mid-70s. It was the first time that NASA entrusted the launch of one of its satellites to a foreign country, underlining the relationship of trust that had been built.
Despite some funding-related discussions, the objective proposed by the Space Research Institute was to launch one satellite per year. Thanks also to NASA’s support, the base was updated with the installation of a tracking station for satellites and human spaceflight.
The base in Kenya had become very prestigious all around the world. In 1971 even Wernher Von Braun, the father of the German V2 and of the much more honorable Saturn V, visited the center.
The decline of a dream
On February 18th, 1974, the San Marco 4 was launched, after three long years from the San Marco 3. All the launches from the platform were carried out successfully, but even the media started to discredit the project, distorting the reality of the facts in their stories. Two years before an investigation was carried out for illicit use of the funds. After meticulous control of the document, Broglio and his team were cleared of the charges the same year. But when in 1974 the investigation was transferred from the politics to the University of Rome, as required by the bureaucratic process, the media reported the facts as if the San Marco scientists were perpetrating illicit and mismanagement.
On the 8th of May 1975, from the platform lifted the last satellite of a foreign space agency. Broglio was confident that, sooner or later, an even bigger international cooperation would have allowed the launch of heavier rockets.
To make the situation even worse, Broglio was against the idea, sustained by some of the most authoritative scientific personalities in Italy, of allowing other countries to launch satellites from the Italian platform, even if he agreed to do so for NASA. This led to the definitive break between the San Marco project and the scientific community that was now sustaining the realization of a European collaboration. It was the beginning of the decline of the launch operations from the Italian-Kenyan space center.
Professor Broglio’s idea about space was a place to do research, which means that universities should have been the main actors. He refused the idea that industries could carve out an important role in the space sector. This was the “error” that, in the end, led the San Marco project to be closed. However, the interest in a floating launch base never waned, especially in the private sector. Many of the scientists who worked with Broglio found employment in these companies thanks to the experience gained over the years of the Italian dream.
What about the future?
Since the last launch on the 25th of March 1988, the platforms remained unused, and only the part of the space center located on the mainland is still active. We asked Giovanni Caprara, space historian and science columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera who interviewed personalities of the caliber of Neil Armstrong and Wernher von Braun, about the future of the Italian-Kenyan base:
“Many years have passed since the last launch and the platform’s conditions are irrecoverable today. Intervening to restore their safety would cost so much that, if there were an interest in the construction of an ocean platform, it would be better to build it from scratch.”
A similar fate to one of the other structures that hosted the San Marco project: “Even the idea of transforming the platform and the structures in Rome that hosted the project is not easy and too expensive. Adequate funding would be needed to recover them and realize a museum, but no one, now, seems to be interested in this kind of operation”.
Today, of the San Marco project, only the antennas’ segments located in Malindi remained active and fully operational. It is a unique reality within Kenya and, thanks to agreements signed with Italy, it allows the training of new professionals specialized in the management of satellites in orbit. Moreover, it is a resource appreciated by all the space agencies, since it allows them to follow many satellites in orbit and recover data from them. All these interests ensure that the base will remain active for a long time to come and could even be strengthened.
Thanks Professor Broglio and ITAF!
Since the beginning of the story of Italy in space, as appears from what has been said so far, the Italian Air Force played a key role. This is not only thanks to the brilliant figure of Professor Luigi Broglio but also to its efforts both in terms of economic financing and technological resources. We have seen how fundamental the experience gained with Jupiter missiles in Puglia was. This, indeed, allowed the Air Force to provide to the San Marco project personnel already qualified in launching operations, contributing greatly to its worldwide success.
In this context, the figure of the Professor and Air Force Official Luigi Broglio emerged as he was able to excellently manage the union between the military and research worlds, allowing the Italian space dream to become true.
For the creation of this series of articles we warmly thank Giovanni Caprara, scientific editor of the Corriere della Sera, who through an interview and the book “Storia Italiana dello Spazio” (Bompiani, 2019), made it possible to delve deeper into the stages that led Italy among the greats of space exploration.