Meet A Rocket Woman: Dr. Chiara Manfletti Head of Policy and Programs Coordination Department at The European Space Agency (ESA) and (formerly) the first president of the Portuguese Space Agency

by Sue Kaur 

“Find strength in you to counteract everything negative that pulls you down, and go forward.”

Prologue: I first met Chiara Manfletti on the 5th of September, 2019, during the opening ceremony of the Master of Space Studies 2020 (MSS20) program at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Chiara, an alumna of ISU (class of MSS02) and the first president of the Portugal Space Agency at the time, was invited as a guest speaker to the MSS20 opening ceremony. Since that day, I’ve had the privilege of watching Chiara in action and working with her as she helped enable Portugal to fortify its presence as a space-faring nation. We sat down to talk about her journey, the challenges she faced along the way, her ambitions, and her message to the future generation. 


SUE: As you’ve pursued this career, have you had a support network, a mentor, or somebody who inspired you? 

CHIARA: I’ve certainly had lots of support from people who thought that I was doing a good job, and hence I should get more responsibility or be given a chance to speak, to have a voice of my own. I have to say thank you to everyone from my parents to all of the people along the way, mostly men, I have to say. Admittedly, we’re in an engineering world and there are more men around than women for sure. But there have been many men along the way, including all of my bosses, who have pushed me to go forward. They’ve seen my eagerness to learn and to do something, so they’ve always pushed me to set ambitious targets for myself, or have just given me the freedom to live out my ambitious targets while working to advance the organizations I was working for and the targets set by their highest management.

SUE: Can you tell me about some setbacks you may have experienced through this journey, and how you overcame them? 

CHIARA: I have to say I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone. Setbacks, of course, are when you put forward an idea and things don’t quite go the way you expected them to go. How you overcome them is just always staying very positive and not losing sight of what it is that needs to be achieved, so not getting stuck. You have a goal and you set out a path for yourself, which you think is the right way of going about it, but if that doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that the goal was wrong. It just means that the path [you chose] was one which you had built based on your experience or thoughts that you had. So you have to change the algorithm, and then you go forward again. I think that’s what it’s all been about.


Left to right: Hugo Costa (Director of PT Space), Supreet Kaur (ISU MSS20), Chiara Manfletti (President of PT Space), Manuel Heitor (Minister of Science, Technology, and Higher Education), Dr. Tejumola Taiwo Raphael (Professor of Space Applications at ISU), and Juan de Dalmau (President of ISU)

SUE: What was your experience as the first president of the Portuguese Space Agency? 

CHIARA: It was a very diverse and exciting experience. When I started there wasn’t much. I mean, there was a lot in the sense that there was a government with a minister extremely willing to push forward and to see things happen. Someone very, very eager to deliver so that was extremely fertile ground. Other than that, there was a statute and a group of people that had followed from FCT (Foundation for Science and Technology in Portugal). But the agency itself didn’t exist other than on paper. So it very much felt like a start-up at the beginning. We didn’t have a bank account, we didn’t even have much furniture. My phone wasn’t working in my office when I arrived, so it was really a very startup-type feeling. Then knowing, on the other hand, that you’re expected to deliver. It is expected of you to have a policy, to come up with a plan, to squeeze your brains, and make sure that the space ecosystem in the country is going to move forward in a European context. Those were sort of the conditions I had in the beginning. 

The first couple of months there were only [few] collaborators at the agency, and we were working very closely together. This was also amazing because decision-making was rapid. Exchanges with the higher levels of government were frequent – daily – meaning that decision-making was like [snapping your fingers]. And that was great. And I kept thinking, “This is really lean and modern. This is fantastic. If every country and every agency could have this for space, it would just be amazing.” And then there was the tough part of coming up with an implementation plan for Portugal in just 3 months. It was a creative process where I could take what I had learned or what I had seen of the European context in the past years, and take my experience as an engineer to see what makes sense for a country like Portugal, where you don’t want necessarily to be competing with the big guys. You want to find those niches where you can put your foot in the door and make sure that you will then be leading in the future. Therefore, identifying those things that maybe the big players are not even concentrating on. 

In certain cases, it was hard to question the cultural mindset of the industry and push for more of an entrepreneurial mindset. To say, “The government isn’t just a source of funding where you just go knock on the door and request financial support. No. The government is a business partner and an investor. It’s as if you’re doing a public-private partnership with the government the whole time. So please convince me – the government – as an investor, and tell me why it’s interesting and try to understand what my aims as an investor are.”

There are always challenges with setting up a new agency or organization within a government network. It is important that the system sees it as something that brings benefit and not as a threat. When a new organization comes in a new framework is established and this takes time. So trying to define yourself as an organization and at the same time build and bring benefit and deliver is certainly an interesting challenge. 

Apart from that, building up a team in just a couple of months was a unique and fulfilling experience. Until September, of 2019, it was two collaborators and myself. Then, in the frame of just three months, we went from 3 to 14 staff members. Creating a new organisation means that you have just a blank white sheet of paper in the onset in front of you. For me the focus was “to bring to this new organization a culture which is very open, which is very lean.” Indeed, that is what I ended up creating – an open team. Even within the board, it’s a team. We rotate some of our tasks and share tasks according to skills, availability, interest and we solve challenges, as a team. So it’s a network-type of organization. If you couldn’t tell from what I was saying, I loved it. 

SUE: It’s a huge accomplishment you’ve achieved in the time that you were there. Do you have any nuggets of wisdom for those who are trying to lead their nations into starting their own space agency and become a space-faring nation?

CHIARA: I can’t stress this enough: having government support and a nurtured dialogue with the government is essential. What I did is always try to approach the problem, or the issue, from the “What are we trying to achieve?” point of view. Trying to explain that space is an opportunity. And in order to make the most of this opportunity, you really need to find that niche, or that element, which will bring you forward, working with everyone. 


SUE:  Can you tell us a little bit about your current role?

CHIARA: I’m currently working at the European Space Agency, my position is called the Head of Policy and Programs Coordination Department. It’s another way of saying that I help shape the future. Every three years, we have the ministers of the countries that are part of ESA come together – at Council Meetings at Ministerial Level – to decide on the budget and activities for the years to follow. My department also implements the education activities of ESA, as well as implementing knowledge management activities at ESA.

SUE: The education you had was very technical, researching liquid rocket propulsion. But your current role is more of a community liaison and leader. You’re implementing policies and strategies. What has that shift been like for you? 

CHIARA: It has been been a great experience and adventure. As an engineer one always tends to think very rationally and scientifically. When it comes to policy, elements are a lot softer. It’s been an interesting experience without a doubt, but otherwise, it’s just so uplifting. It’s just uplifting because it’s about enabling. As an engineer, you’re enabling from a technical point of view, and there are things that you may or may not understand, or why they’re done one way or the other. Having this technical background, I think has also enabled me to build the bridges that I so love to build. It’s all about enabling. 

SUE: What is something you’d like to accomplish in your current position?

CHIARA:  Space is undergoing transition, and I’d very much like to see ESA continue leading this evolution strengthened by strong partnerships within Europe and across the globe. The space sector in Europe is evolving thanks to everything that Member States have committed to do, and to the trust that they’ve put in the European Space Agency. And because of that, space is evolving faster than it would have without such an organization. I would want to see ESA is equipped to continue evolving the space sector. 

Things that I’d like to help achieve and the leadership of the Director General …making sure that the next ministerial meeting is a success. And that we enable new fantastic missions and initiate new challenging initiatives. We address the future of each and every domain that we deal with, from the scientific missions to the next steps for man or woman on the moon, on towards Mars, the next generation of earth observation satellites, setting up elements for an operational space weather system – helping make this happen is a part of my ambition. 


You’re gonna have to find your thingWhat do you actually want to do? Where do you see yourself? I think you need to find your thing, your niche… You need to have that anchor.

SUE: I think that we’ve become a bit divided in recent times. We do need to have international cooperation going forward to establish some of these big goals we’ve outlined for our species. The Artemis Generation, human presence on Mars – it’s just not going to happen with the United States or the EU alone. It’s going to require us all to come together and work together. Do you have any messages for the younger generation and the current policymakers, with this in mind? Or advice for the generation that’s going to come in and start taking over some of these roles in the space industry?

CHIARA: Absolutely. It’s been clear for me because I haven’t really lived or experienced just a single country. Being international and living in an international mindset and working together with other nations and countries and diverse cultures is what we need. So working together is an absolute must. The current messages that we hear, even as citizens, tend to be very negative, especially now in the pandemic. Things I read in the news are always negative, and I think one of my messages is to stay positive. Look for the good, the good side of everything you know, and keep true to the positive goals that you set. Space is about building bridges and when you see Earth from space there are no borders. The earth is a very, very tiny blue dot, so it really deserves for us to work together.

I understand that there are ambitions of certain nations to show their prowess in certain areas. That leads to more conflicting types of messages. As a person, I don’t endorse those types of messages. My message to younger generations must be one of diversity and a multidisciplinary approach. Always keeping an open mind. Staying positive. The strength is in making constructive criticism, not just criticism. It’s really easy to criticize, especially if you’re not the person in charge or you’re not the one with the responsibility. But with constructive criticism, if you’re not happy with the way things were going, you can look for what could be done differently. So always keep a positive, forward-looking mindset. 

SUE: I’m going to ask you for some career advice now. When I did my undergraduate research at NASA, everything I studied at the university level was so technical. There wasn’t really a human element. But then, at NASA, it was more about learning about these ways of working together and procedures. You can have all these brilliant ideas, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to communicate and implement that idea. And now, I’m finding myself in this weird place where what I do more of on a day-to-day basis is communication. My role as an engineer has become more about bringing awareness to the space industry, generating interest, teaching people about the tools and resources that they can use to bring about their ideas. But I have to say, Chiara, I feel a little bit thrown off the track I thought I would be on, as an engineer. 

CHIARA: I understand that. I hired a very young lady who basically finished university. I actually said to her, “Look, you can come. You can come and be part of the agency and you will learn a lot, but you’re gonna have to find your thing.” It sounds weird, right? But I’ve said this to other young ladies and to boys, because you may get pushed or pulled into activities that you were not thinking of doing originally. The important question for personal sustainable growth is, what do you actually want to do? Where do you see yourself? I think you need to find your thing, your niche. You could do that quickly, or you could do that more slowly. But you need to have that anchor. And I think this is what you’re saying, you don’t have that anchor yet. So the question is, what is your anchor? When you have your anchor, then you could go outside of your comfort zone. I like to continuously be outside of my comfort zone, but I know what my thing is, and my thing is liquid rocket propulsion.

SUE: This is why I thought it would be really interesting to interview you. It takes a certain type of person to make the leap from something so technical, to being the person who crafts strategies and ideas for many nations to follow. I think there is something beautiful in that, and it’s worth sharing with the larger audience. 

CHIARA: Oh, that’s sweet. By the way, I still do give lectures. So I haven’t completely left the technical arena. And I do that for two reasons. One reason is because I feel that when I came out of university, it was with a false perception of what was waiting for me. I thought I could just go out there and build the next rocket and really contribute to a real big push. I was very enthusiastic, and really super motivated. And then I realized that the industry is different, the sector was slow, there are lots of dimensions you have no clue about when you’re studying. 

So I try to bring students not just a technical knowledge which I’ve gained over the years but also to give them a systems perspective, and to bring to them all of these complexities, these other dimensions – political dimensions, the policy-making dimensions, the decision making dimensions – all of this, so that they know, they realize that there’s a lot more that they don’t see but can imagine. I’m hoping that way, when they decide to go into space, they will have their energy, but also realize that there are significant challenges. And then they will be ready to face those challenges knowing – a bit more – what is ahead. 

SUE: As we conclude the interview, do you have any last message you’d like to send out to the world? 

CHIARA: We are facing lots of challenges at the moment, but it’s nothing that we can’t resolve. Let’s not get carried away by negativism. Lead through positive examples. Try to find strength in you to counteract negative elements that pull you down, and move forward. I think a lot about the youth or young enthusiasm that we have in us as individuals, and it’s something we need to nourish at every instance – no matter the age

Image references, in order: 

  1. Expresso, 2020. Chiara Manfletti standing in a garden. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 March 2021].
  2. Image courtesy of author, Sue Kaur.
  3. Expresso, 2019. Chiara Manfletti sitting on a table next to model rockets and satellites.. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 March 2021].

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