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An interview with Giacinto Gianfiglio, ExoMars System Engineering Manager

An interview with Giacinto Gianfiglio, ExoMars System Engineering Manager


Giacinto Gianfiglio

ExoMars System Engineering Manager

(mid 2004 – present)


Left: Giacinto Gianfiglio, ESA’s ExoMars System Engineering Manager. Credit: ESA

Giacinto Gianfiglio was born in Martina Franca, a picturesque town situated in Puglia, in the 'heel' of Italy’s 'boot'. As a child Giacinto was inspired and fascinated by aeronautics engineering and space programmes and he can still remember watching the televised coverage of the first human landing on the surface of the Moon in 1969. Later, influenced by the energy crisis in the early 70s, he envisaged helping in solving that crisis and decided to orientate his studies toward the research and technology development of nuclear power. He studied at the Politecnico in Turin graduating as a Doctor in Nuclear Engineering and qualified as a Professional Engineer in 1983.

At that time, the Italian political situation did not support research and development for nuclear power and Giacinto decided to change the direction of his professional career and pursue his earlier interests. Soon after completing his military duty in 1984, as Telecommunication Specialist in the 3rd Regional Operative Command of the Italian Air Force, he started working in the Aeritalia (now Thales Alenia Space - Italy) Space System Group in Turin.

In 1989, he joined ESA as a Structure, Thermal and Mechanisms System Engineer for the Solar Terrestrial Science Programme (STSP) in the Science Directorate. Following the split of STSP into the SOHO and Cluster projects, he worked as a Thermo-Mechanical Systems Engineer in the latter project until its launch. After the unsuccessful launch of Cluster in 1996, he contributed to the preparation of the Cluster 2 mission. He was then appointed as Surface Science Package System Engineer for the Rosetta mission serving as the ESA technical responsible for the Rosetta Lander, Philae. Towards the end of 1999 he moved to the Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity Directorate as Head of ISS External Payloads Section to manage a programme of various science and technology payloads (e.g. SOLAR, EuTEF) which were subsequently installed on the 'balcony' of the ESA Columbus laboratory. In mid 2004, Giacinto was seconded to the AURORA programme as ExoMars Phase B1 Manager and in February 2007 he was appointed as ExoMars System Engineering Manager.

Giacinto is happily married with four children, two daughters and two sons. He enjoys spending his limited spare time with his family engaging in activities such us listening to music and watching movies, with action and science fiction films being his favourite genres. He is also fond of playing football.


Giacinto, what is your role in this programme?

Being the ExoMars System Engineering Manager, I manage all relevant activities aimed at designing the mission and establishing the system architecture to achieve the scientific, technological and programmatic objectives of the programme. In particular, I am responsible for defining and controlling the requirements for the key constituents of the system (i.e. the spacecraft, the launcher and the ground segment), including the elements provided via international cooperation.

When ExoMars become a two-mission programme in 2009, I took a more prominent role in the 2016 mission to ensure its design coherence and to be in line with the technical and schedule requirements.

Concerning the elements provided via international cooperation, I am in charge of the interfaces between the Orbiter, the Launcher as well as the UHF-band telecommunication equipments funded by NASA and provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Finally, my role also includes the coordination, along with ESOC, of the ExoMars Ground Segment and Mission Operation implementation activities.


What has been your favourite part of your career so far?

I have been lucky to have been involved in several projects both in industry and in ESA. I have worked for telecommunication missions, for payloads in the International Space Station as well as for deep space science missions. Each step of my career has contributed to the development of my professional experience, both in the technical and the management side and, for that reason, I like them all. However, my favourite part is clearly ExoMars because of its complexity and the associated challenges.


What challenges do you face?

The main challenge I see is to complete the design, manufacturing and testing of the 2016 mission components (Trace Gas Orbiter and Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module) within the tight technical and schedule constraints. ExoMars, like many interplanetary missions, must comply with a fixed launch period: for the first mission this is a 3-week slot in January 2016. I can assure you that meeting this launch date, considering the complexity of the project, is a significant challenge!

To accomplish this goal, the ExoMars system engineers of my group and I are working hard in many areas (mission and spacecraft design, launch vehicle, telecommunication equipments and mission operations interfaces) while collaborating with several parties (industry, NASA/JPL and ESOC). In particular, concerning the development of the elements provided by JPL for the Orbiter, we must find the most suitable system engineering approach (design, development, verification/testing and associated schedule) to meet the very stringent interface requirements.

Despite all these challenges, I am pretty confident that we will get things done in time.


Why did you choose to work on the ExoMars Programme?

Well, it is a long story. In February 2004 I was called to chair the Technical Panel of the ExoMars Mission Requirement Review (end of Phase A (study phase) review). Participating in this panel, made me realise the complexity and, at the same time, the challenges of that mission.

That review concluded that it was necessary to continue Phase A work and I was given the opportunity to lead that study; how could I have refused such an opportunity? That was the start of my engagement with this fascinating mission. Once the study phase was completed, I continued to lead the team that prepared for the Phase B1 (design phase) and eventually kicked off the industrial activities in October 2005.


What is it like working with an international team?

It is very interesting and rewarding. Since my time in industry, I have had the opportunity to work in an international team and this enabled me to improve my English language skills and to a certain extent also my French. Apart from that, working in an international environment allows for cultural exchanges, which open up possibilities for new ideas and new approaches for solving problems and getting things done. Of course there are sometime difficulties but with a good dose of pragmatism most corners can be smoothed.


What inspires you about Mars and the ExoMars Programme?

First of all, I am really inspired by exploration “per se”. I think that the exploration of our planet has been an inspiring element of human progress and space exploration is the natural evolution for enlarging the frontiers of investigation from our planet to outer space: orbiting around Earth, the Moon and then, of course, Mars, as the Red Planet is not really far from us.

Moreover, ExoMars is the first step in the ESA-NASA global cooperation for robotic exploration, which is the precursor to human exploration. I am very excited to be part of the team that will hopefully achieve this first important milestone.


What is the big question about Mars you would like to see answered?

I have two questions that I would like to see answered and they are both closely linked to the ExoMars mission objectives.

The first one: Is there or has there been any form of life on Mars? I would be very grateful to our scientists if they were able to answer this question by analysing the data that the two ExoMars missions will collect.

The second: Does Europe (i.e. ESA and the European space industry) master the technologies and have the capability of going to Mars and perform remote sensing of the planet, landing on its surface, roving and drilling? If we can answer "Yes" to this question, then we will also be capable of making further steps in the exploration of our Solar System, even if the answer to the first question turns out to be "No".


What is your vision or hope for the future of the mission?

My vision is that ESA, with the support of its Member States and international partners, will establish a solid long-term programme for Robotic Exploration.

As ExoMars is the first pillar of this programme, I hope that both ExoMars missions will be able to achieve their objectives in a timely and successful manner. This will be a major milestone for the ESA programme and it will also demonstrate the possibilities of international cooperation which is an essential prerequisite for future and more ambitious robotic exploration missions, like the Mars Sample Return.

I am proud and committed to work on ExoMars and, at the same time, prepared for the project’s challenges.

Last Update: 1 September 2019
23-Sep-2023 08:11 UT

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