Italy’s Underrated Space Program


Italy’s Underrated Space Program

The geopolitical logic of Italy’s development as a space actor is of particular relevance for the United States.


Since the United States has designated space a warfighting domain, similar to traditional warfighting environments such as air, land, and sea, the interest in the extraterrestrial plane from the American political, military, and industrial world has significantly increased. In 2021, the Biden administration unveiled its Space Priorities Framework, which reaffirmed the nation’s space objectives, helping to align the U.S. government's strategies with the rapid advancements of the American commercial space industry and safeguarding national interests in an increasingly competitive space domain. From this point of view, growing Russian Chinese space capabilities pose military and geopolitical challenges. To cope with these challenges, American policymakers also need their allies to strengthen their capabilities in this domain, particularly if these capabilities have transatlantic relevance and support NATO activities. This is precisely the case with Italy, with whom space has been at the core of cooperation between the two allies over the past years.

The recent diplomatic missions to the United States of Guido Crosetto, Antonio Tajani, and Adolfo Urso—respectively, Italian ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and enterprises—have highlighted the growing relevance of the space industry for this partnership. More importantly, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s upcoming trip to Washington DC will devote significant attention to space issues.


From Draghi to Meloni: Continuity is the Keyword

From an industrial perspective, Italy stands out as one of the few nations whose businesses span the entire space value chain, including all upstream, midstream, and downstream operations across all major technological domains. The outgoing government of Mario Draghi released a “Digital Italy” white paper, presenting progress on this front while outlining the vision for the future.

According to this document, space represents a robust sector for Italy and an excellent opportunity for further development. The strategy for the years 2021–2026 commends the industry for “consolidating its presence in the so-called upstream sector: in launchers… satellites with multiple operational characteristics… crucial to enhance Earth observation capabilities, and… space modules functional to the exploration of space.”

On space policy, the continuity between the previous and the current government is striking, an important consideration for foreign governments and companies hoping to invest or collaborate. Italy is among the nine nations that earmark an annual budget of €1 billion ($1.04 billion) for their space sectors. Regarding investment relative to GDP, Italy ranks sixth globally, trailing just behind India and Germany. In an industry globally known for the presence of prominent actors, in Italy is peculiar the relevance for this sector of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

SMEs constitute an astonishing 80 percent of the national space industry and employ more than 7,000 people. Italy is also a notable contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA) ranking as the third-largest donor after Germany and France.

The Partnership with the United States

Space was at the center of Minister Urso’s agenda in DC. He met Chirag Parikh, the Executive Secretary of the National Space Council. The bilateral conversation underscored the intent to fortify the collaboration on space exploration. Urso emphasized that “global challenges are played out in space” while acknowledging the numerous collaborations with the United States.

These collaborations include participation in the International Space Station (ISS) and the Artemis program—Italy was among the first to sign to the latter, even expressing interest through a joint statement in September 2020—human spaceflight, lunar exploration, scientific missions, and numerous agreements with NASA and private corporations. Urso also unveiled that talks have commenced for a Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), expressing hope for a swift conclusion of these negotiations and aiming towards a reciprocal arrangement with the United States.

Interestingly, Minister Urso engaged with a delegation of representatives from leading U.S. space and aerospace corporations. The intent was to cultivate cooperation based on a B2B (business-to-business) approach, transcending government boundaries and extending to the industrial realm. The goal is stimulating interaction and collaboration between businesses, moving beyond mere institutional dialogue. This approach represents a strategic step towards a comprehensive bilateral partnership, underscoring the potential for cross-sector collaborations and a more agile approach to building partnerships in the space industry.

Anticipating the retirement of the ISS and the surge in the commercialization of low Earth orbit, the Italian Air Force has struck a deal with the Texas-based company Axiom, a key player in the construction of commercial space stations. In early March, the Italian Air Force signed an agreement to guarantee Italian Air Force (ItAF) training and an Air Force astronaut's mission participation from the ISS to Earth. This agreement builds upon the joint activities initiated between the two organizations in 2018, further cementing the Italian Air Force’s position in space exploration and commercialization.

Axiom Space is at the forefront of innovative space infrastructure, collaborating with NASA to construct the first commercial space station. In 2025, the first module manufactured by Axiom will link to the second node of the International Space Station (ISS), slated for retirement in 2031. This arrangement will expand the habitability and functionality of the ISS before these modules ultimately detach to form a completely independent residential and commercial entity in space.

This memorandum positions the Italian government and private sector to contribute substantially to the future space economy. It allows participation in building, utilizing, and marketing space infrastructures. The agreement allows for expansive collaboration, particularly the “definition of technological solutions and operational concepts for an Italian module that could subsequently be developed and integrated into the Axiom Space Station.”

The Geopolitics of Space

Developing this sector has several significant geopolitical implications for Italy. This sector is increasingly gaining transatlantic momentum: reflecting this growing interest, NATO recognized space as a major operational domain in 2019, while the 2022 Strategic Concept frequently references space issues. Italy is among those few NATO-allied nations possessing space capabilities, which it avails to the organization through sharing and pooling.

For other Transatlantic partners, the positioning of Italy as a trailblazer in space exploration is worth noting. However, the strategic value of Italy as a partner in the space sector to the United States, and more broadly NATO, transcends immediate bilateral cooperation and expertise sharing within the alliance, as it also has other dimensions.

For instance, Italy’s prowess in this domain could also prove instrumental in other geographies, such as the Mediterranean and Africa, where space-based capabilities can have a significant impact and represent a tool to contain the influence of other actors. For instance, Italy boasts substantial experience in Earth observation, which could equip Mediterranean and African partners with capabilities in diverse sectors, including agriculture, water scarcity management, extreme weather events, and natural disaster prediction.

Italy is introducing the “Iride” program, poised to become a crucial satellite program for low Earth orbit observation. This program will deliver eight core services: marine and coastal monitoring, air quality, land movement monitoring, land cover, hydro-meteorological climate, water resources monitoring, emergency management, and security. Crucially, Iride will generate analytical data to drive the development of commercial applications by startups, SMEs, and various industry sectors.

Cooperation on low Earth orbit observation could also be a key collaboration area with African partners. The Luigi Broglio Malindi Space Center positions Italy as an attractive partner for numerous countries on the continent. Established in 1966 and managed by the Italian Space Agency since 2004, the center is strategically located in Malindi on the Indian Ocean, near the Equator, which is crucial for achieving higher escape velocities for launch vehicles. Despite its potential, the site has only seen twenty-three launches, the latest in 1988.

Today, the center is a significant hub for receiving satellite and telemetry data, tracking launches, and other space objects. It forms an essential node in the cooperation network with other countries and space agencies such as NASA, ESA, France’s CNES, China’s CNSA, and others. During a state visit to Kenya in March of the current year, Italian president Sergio Mattarella toured the center and attempted to reinvigorate Italy’s partnerships with various African countries interested in advancing their space capabilities.

This element has obvious transatlantic implications: in recent years, China has tried to deepen cooperation with African countries in this domain, seeking to boost their space aspirations in a clear attempt to undermine U.S. supremacy in this field. As such, deepening ties with African countries could also be part of a responsible transatlantic burden-sharing approach, which has been a crucial topic of debate among NATO partners for a few years now.

The Case for Cooperation

The United States’ recognition of space as a warfighting domain, akin to traditional battlefields like air, land, and sea, has spurred considerable interest from the political, military, and industrial sectors to bolster capabilities to cope with potential challenges emanating from the space domain. Against this backdrop, the United States is also interested in bolstering space capabilities among its allies, focusing on those having transatlantic relevance and the potential to aid NATO activities.

The case of Italy served as a prime example of this, with space becoming a central pillar of cooperation between the two nations in recent years. Italy has shown a remarkable pledge to deepen its expertise and expand its presence in the space sector, establishing itself as a critical player in the global space community.