Why I left the Foreign Service III
Rome: Tethered Satellite. Firing of space agency chief.
One of the best parts of my job as Science Officer in various embassies was that I was the representative of NASA, and everyone loved NASA. In addition to being glamorous, NASA had stuff to give away, like observation time on the space telescope, rides on the Shuttle, etc. The local space agency always wanted to stay on my good side. When I came to Rome, I inherited an agreement under which the Shuttle would carry a tethered satellite for the Italian Space Agency. This satellite would be reusable. It would ride in the Shuttle cargo bay, and when the Shuttle was in orbit, it would be released on a long tether to collect data away from the pollution of the Shuttle. Then, when the Shuttle was getting ready to return to earth, the satellite would be reeled in, much like a fishing line would be reeled in. The satellite would be stored in the cargo bay and returned to earth until it was flown on another mission. It promised huge savings because satellites are so expensive to build, impossible to repair in space, etc.
On its first flight, however, the reel jammed, the tether broke, and the expensive satellite drifted off into space beyond the reach of the Shuttle. For a change, being the NASA representative was not so great. The crew of that Shuttle visited Rome, and while it was not billed as an apology tour for losing the satellite, that’s basically what it was. Meanwhile, the head of the Italian Space Agency was in political trouble. While his problems were not directly linked to the failed satellite, losing the satellite did not help his position. I was unhappy, because I was feeling snake bit. I had had little to do with the mission, which had been planned long before I arrived in Rome, but I was there when it happened. It turned out that because I was retiring, the head of the Italian Space Agency and I left Rome about the same time. He was going to take some time off before moving on to his next venture. While my only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it added to the dissatisfaction I was feeling about the job. If the best part of my job, working with NASA, turned sour, there was not much left.