Press Release

ESA turns 30! A successful track record for Europe in space

By SpaceRef Editor
May 31, 2005
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ESA turns 30! A successful track record for Europe in space

On 31 May 2005, the European Space Agency, whose Member States pool their resources to pursue common goals for space utilisation and research, turned 30. Thanks to an impressive mission record, the Agency has placed Europe and European industry at the forefront of space activities around the world.

Yet, when it all started, a European success story in terms of space activities seemed far away.  The world was divided up by the two superpowers into spheres of influence in which the Soviet Union and the United States respectively sought to exploit their near-unassailable lead role, as much politically as militarily, both here on Earth and in space.  However, in recent decades, in many areas of space research and utilisation, Europe has managed not only to make up ground but has actually managed to catch up with these space giants and is today an acknowledged partner for both. Moreover, the Agency now reflects Europe’s ranking as one of the world’s top space-faring pioneers – notably in space science, Earth observation, telecommunications and launchers.

“ESA came into being on 31 May 1975, following in the footsteps of its two parent organisations, ESRO and ELDO, and has now turned 30. What an achievement! In such a short time, ESA has grown to become  one of the foremost space agencies in the world.

International cooperation –  first among the Member States themselves and then with other space-faring nations – has been the key to this success story,” says ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain.

“I am particularly honoured and proud to be the Director General of the Agency today, as we celebrate its 30th birthday, in a year which has already produced a number of spectacular successes – Huygens landing on Titan, the launch of the new-version Ariane 5, the Eneide mission to the International Space Station –  to name just a few of the most striking highlights.”

“And for all these achievements, thanks are due to its Member States, to all the ESA staff, contractors and all those who, in national space authorities and in industry all over Europe, ever since the pioneering days of the 1960s, have believed in ESA and have dedicated time and effort to contributing to its growth. And there is still such a lot that all of us working together can accomplish in future”.

In the light of 30 years of continuing success, ESA is stepping up its cooperation with the European Union in order to place the European space sector at the service of EU policies and Europe’s citizens. This cooperation will further consolidate the joint European space effort and thus give it a sustained international competitive edge. The European space policy is being integrated within the wider ambitions of Europe. Particularly in the areas of transport, the environment, security, agriculture and technology, space is becoming an important strand of  European policy and is gearing itself up to respond to the needs of Europe’s citizens. With European countries increasingly acting in concert, space activity is set to become a much larger and more integrated undertaking in future, with ESA adapting to take on an even greater role for Europe.

Difficult beginnings: Europe, quo vadis?

Europe’s successes in space  are all the more remarkable in that they have been achieved against a background of diverging interests, with scientific, political and economic considerations on the one side, and the more nationally-focused thinking of the various European states on the other.  In other words, forty years ago, Europe was still on a learning curve.   This is especially apparent from the fact that there were originally two intergovernmental European space organisations: ESRO for the development and construction of science satellites, and ELDO for separate rocket launcher development.

Paradoxically, the first successful satellite launch by ESRO on 17 May 1968 also triggered the first crisis within that organisation. At the heart of the controversy was the question whether applications satellites – chiefly for telecommunications and meteorology purposes – should be developed alongside research satellites, something which the ESRO Convention specifically excluded.

It was not until four years later, in 1972, that the deadlock was broken. It was agreed that the organisation’s science programme would remain a mandatory activity, to which each Member State (Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain) was to contribute, on the basis of GNP.   But a new, optional programme was introduced covering the area of applications, in which the Member States could participate on a voluntary basis.

However, problems were to arise not just at ESRO but also with ELDO.  It set up Europe’s first rocket range at Woomera in the South Australia desert and in 1964 began developing its own launcher, which was soon to be given the name Europa-1.  After a succession of launch failures, it was decided to move the entire operation to Kourou in French Guiana.   There, the conditions for launching satellites into geostationary orbit at altitudes of 36 000 km over the Equator were recognised as being considerably more advantageous.  But even with a Europa-2 upgrade incorporating an additional solid-propellant stage, success for Europe remained elusive.  The one launch carried out on 5 November 1971 was unsuccessful.  In 1973, the project was scrapped, along with the already-ongoing programme studies on an improved Europa-3 version.  This meant that ELDO did not ultimately achieve its own set objective of having a Europa rocket put a satellite into earth orbit.

1975 the turning point: establishment of the European Space Agency

Political decisions had to be taken.  It is above all thanks to the determined French position that in 1975 the decision was taken to develop a new-generation rocket launcher, the L3S (Europa-3 substitute).   For France right from the outset, autonomous access to space was of paramount strategic importance.  Its mistrust of the space transport monopoly of the two superpowers was not unfounded.   Contrary to initial US assurances, the go-ahead to use an American rocket to launch Europe’s first geostationary communication satellites – the Franco-German Syphonie satellites – was forthcoming only after Europe had given its assurance that these systems were to be used exclusively for experimental purposes and not for operational commercial ends.

On 31 July 1973, an extensive space package was put together by the meeting of ministers in Brussels which laid decisive foundations for a successful and future-oriented space programme.  The spearhead of these ambitions was the development of the L3S. This launcher, eventually to be renamed Ariane, was destined to make a sensational impact and actually come to symbolise Europe’s space endeavours.  The development of the Ariane launcher continued under the auspices of the newly-established European Space Agency, which finally came into existence following the merging of ESRO and ELDO, officially starting work on 31 May 1975.

There were ten founding Member States: Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain.   In that same year, Ireland joined.   Since then,  Austria, Norway, Finland, Portugal and Greece have also become members.  And with the imminent accession of Luxembourg at the end of 2005, the number of Member States is set to become 17. Canada works on several ESA programmes on the basis of  a long-term Cooperation Agreement. Hungary and the Czech Republic have also recently started to cooperate with ESA.

Money invested flows back to ESA Member States

ESA’s task is the pursuit of cooperation among European states on space research and technology for exclusively peaceful purposes.  Large-scale space technology programmes in the area of infrastructure are therefore one cornerstone of ESA activities, such as the development of successive generations of the Ariane launcher and the human spaceflight programme, which is due to deliver the European contribution to the International Space Station in the form of the Columbus laboratory and the supply flights using the unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

In addition, the Agency carries out various programmes in the fields of space science, microgravity research, space transport systems, remote sensing, telecommunications and navigation.  All such programmes are organised and carried out by ESA as a European enterprise.   Without these strategically key space programmes, we in the Europe of today would have to rely on outside help with telecommunications and resources management.

ESA also plays a coordinating role, in that it monitors activities pursued by the Member States nationally and, where appropriate, integrates them within a European framework.   Its tasks also include development further down the line of innovative space technologies in order to help Europe build up an  internationally competitive space industry.

ESA at thirty has at its disposal for 2005 a budget of ?2977 million.  The bulk of the money is spent on orders with industry in  the various Member States.  The allocation procedure stipulates that each Member State is to receive a fair financial and technological return on its investment.

European launchers: a phoenix from the ashes

When the political decision-makers gave the green light for the development of the Ariane launcher in 1973,  they had autonomous European access to space very much in mind.  But they may well have been unaware at the time that they were also laying the foundations for a new and lucrative economic sector. For there was at that time no market for satellite launch services. On the contrary, the United States was winding up its fleet of rocket launchers in favour of developing the reusable Space Shuttle.   This was supposed to slash launch costs, with launches of production-line satellites set to become a weekly occurrence.  Faced with such an outlook, who would have banked on a conventional rocket launcher proving successful?

When on Christmas Eve in 1979 the first Ariane was launched on its maiden flight and  flawlessly reached its planned orbit, there was both joy and astonishment in equal measure:   the Europeans could build a rocket launcher after all!  Ariane came to symbolise Europe  and symbolise an open market. To handle Ariane launch service sales and marketing, a private operator – Arianespace – was set up, its shareholders being drawn from the European space industry.

It soon became apparent however that the lift-capability of the original Ariane configuration was no longer sufficient to meet international market demand, for, despite miniaturisation, satellite size and mass were on the increase.   ESA reacted promptly.   In 1981, it embarked on a programme designed to improve the performance of the European launcher.  The subsequently-developed Ariane versions 2 and 3 also provided the possibility of dual-payload launches for the first time in the history of conventional launcher design.

Ariane 4 grew to become the undisputed star of a growing Ariane family and also one of the most reliable and economically successful launchers in the world.  During its fifteen-year career from 1988 to 2003, it lifted over 180 satellites into orbit. Arianespace, exploiting its “dual-launch” market brand and “modular configuration”, achieved a market share of up to 60% of commercial satellite launches worldwide.

The continued technical and industrial success of the launcher sector in Europe now depends on the current Ariane 5 version.   By 2001, ESA had decided that Ariane’s payload lift-capability was to be upgraded from 7.5 to ten and eventually twelve tonnes.  ESA is currently still researching various concepts for a programme geared to designing a successor to Ariane. It is still an open question as to whether this will involve developing a reusable or an expendable launch system.

Towards a coordinated European space effort

The decision by European governments to move forward together was also driven by clear economic considerations. No European country acting alone could manage to carry out a comprehensive and ambitious space programme that included the development, construction and operation of  advanced satellites and the installation of the necessary infrastructure – test centres, ground facilities and tracking stations.

ESA has built up the necessary structures on a joint European basis.  Along with its Headquarters based in Paris are the following establishments and centres:

  • ESTEC: the European Space Technology Centre, in Noordwijk (the Netherlands). Essentially, ESA’s technical research and test facilities are to be found here.
  • ESOC: the European Space Operations Centre, in Darmstadt (Germany), supported by an extensive network of advanced ground stations in Australia, Belgium, French Guiana, Italy, Sweden and Spain, controls satellite and probe operations.
  • ESRIN: the European Space Research Institute,  in Frascati near Rome (Italy), houses the Earth Observation Directorate and all related activities and is home to ESA’s information services.
  • EAC: the European Astronaut Centre, in Porz/Cologne (Germany). Since its founding in 1989, this has been the training centre for the European astronaut Corps.
  • ESAC: the European Space Astronomy Centre,  in Villafranca near Madrid, (Spain).  This centre also handles the data archives of many ESA science missions.
  • CSG: “Europe’s Spaceport” in Kourou, French Guiana (South America), the launch and test-firing centre for European launchers (Ariane, Vega, Soyuz).

The total number of staff at the European Space Agency, drawn from all the Member States, is currently around 1900 (in 2005).  With ESA’s programmes for launchers, science, telecommunications, Earth observation and human spaceflight, Europe has proved that it has expert competence in these areas. But these programmes are also important in terms of safeguarding and building up jobs for highly qualified specialists.  At present, the European space industry directly employs 40 000 and indirectly 250 000.

30 Years of ESA achievements

In its three decades of existence, ESA has, despite the relatively modest means at its disposal, acquired a truly excellent reputation. It has become a byword for high quality science, interplanetary missions, solar research, Earth observation, disaster prediction, and research into the climate and the environment. Such ESA successes have been made possible by outstanding scientific and technical achievements, as the following examples make abundantly clear:

1. Space transportation: Ariane as a symbol for Europe

Despite the most intense competition from the United States, Russia, China, India and Japan, ESA-developed Ariane launchers have to date been the dominant force in the commercial launch services market, particularly for communications satellites.

2. Satellite communications: the foundations of an information society

Key standards used by the latest generation of communications satellites are based on ESA-developed technologies that have flown in more than 80 European-manufactured satellites in a sector worth billions.

3. Environmental research: Europe standing watch over the Earth

ESA is a world leader in the monitoring of the ozone hole, ice caps, ocean winds, currents and other factors that influence our planet’s health: in 1991, with ERS 1, it began its highly successful Earth exploration programme, followed up in 1995 with the world’s finest ozone monitoring satellite, ERS 2. In the future ESA will continue to monitor changes to the global environment through a series of highly specialised Earth exploration missions carried out in the framework of its ”Living Planet” programme.

2002 saw the entry into service of Envisat, the world’s largest, most complex, most ambitious and most up-to-date environmental satellite. Its ten onboard instrument systems record in high temporal and spatial resolution the processes at work in the seas, on the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere, thereby providing scientists with the wherewithal to enable our home planet to resist the environmental threats to its existence. The world’s finest environmental research is not even that expensive: Envisat costs each citizen about the price of a cup of coffee per year. In return, for at least the last five years that same citizen has been getting precise data on how our environment is changing as a result of global warming, ozone depletion and climate change. This data, essential for informed political decisions, is long overdue. Nature is no respecter of political borders. The atmosphere belongs to the Earth as a whole, and circulatory phenomena affect the entire planet. Neither Europe nor anywhere else can consider itself immune to such environmental threats.

4. Meteorology: Meteosat’s miracle vision

Since 1977 the ESA-developed Meteosat geostationary meteorological satellites have been making a major contribution to weather forecasting and global climate monitoring. Four 1st and 2nd generation Meteosat satellites are currently in operation over Europe, Africa and the Indian Ocean. They are operated by EUMETSAT, an international organisation concerned with the exploitation of meteorological data, which is primarily supplied to European countries.

What Europe’s citizens have come to view as so totally normal, namely the availability of meteorological information of ever increasing quality, should by no means be taken for granted. Even a space power as accomplished as Russia has since 2004 not had access to any weather satellites of its own, with the result that it too is dependent on data from Meteosat.

It was to satisfy meteorologists’ appetite for ever more detailed information that ESA, on behalf of EUMETSAT, developed MSG, the second generation of Meteosat satellites, the first of which was launched in 2002. MSG 1 is the world’s most modern weather satellite and the one with the most refined technology. But despite these achievements, ESA has no intention of resting on its laurels. In the coming years, ESA and EUMETSAT plan to add to those Meteosat satellites currently stationed over the equator a further three polar-orbiting Metop platforms equipped with radar eyes, which will help bring substantial improvements to short-, medium- and long-term weather forecasting.

5. Navigation and communications: ESA and EU priorities

The market for satellite navigation, information and communications is an extremely promising one. By building the Galileo independent civil satellite navigation system, Europe wishes to free itself from its dependence on the United States in that area. This ESA/EU joint project will, by providing extremely precise positioning signals for planes, ships and road vehicles, revolutionise all forms of transport and services dependent on that transport. In its first 15 years of operation Galileo should generate turnover of up to ?90 billion from the sale of equipment and services, thus creating at least 100 000 jobs in Europe. The system, made up of 30 satellites, should be fully operational by 2009.

The second flagship project involving ESA/EU cooperation is GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security). For this project, a network of operational satellites will be built for Europe that will harness the potential of Earth observation, making its data available for a large number of applications in policy areas as diverse as the environment, transport and development while also assisting in disaster prevention.

A third crucial role for Europe’s future information society is played by long-term research programmes in the field of satellite communication technologies.

6. Interplanetary probes

Europe has also made its mark in solar system exploration. Its breakthrough came in 1986 when of all the probes launched around the world, it was ESA’s Giotto that achieved the most audacious approach to Halley’s Comet.

In 2004, Europe returned to comet-chasing, this time in an attempt to perform the first landing on such a body. In doing so it would be landing on an object thought to contain original matter present at the origin of our solar system, some 4.6 billion years ago. Thus, the Rosetta probe is on a 10-year journey to discover the origins of our planet. Could it be that comets once brought water and life to Earth? By 2014 we will be in a better position to answer that question when Rosetta is brought into orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the Philae lander, to which Germany is a leading contributor, is deposited on its surface.

Since December 2003, Europe’s high-tech Mars Express probe has been in orbit around the Red Planet. The information relayed back to Earth by its instruments has been keeping researchers very busy and has contained its fair share of surprises. New clues as to possible biological life forms, water at the planet’s surface and still active volcanoes have revived the age-old debate about life on the Red Planet. The latest 3-D images of Mars, recorded by Mars Express’s world-beating camera, have already fundamentally changed our knowledge of our neighbouring planet.

By successfully performing a soft landing on Saturn’s Titan moon on 14 January 2005, the Huygens probe showed that the European Space Agency had become a prime mover in interplanetary research. ESA has ceased to be a junior partner to other agencies when it comes to solar system exploration and can now consider itself an equal player with the best in the business.

ESA is currently focussed on an exciting new challenge for the end of this year. On 26 October, with its Venus Express probe, it will set out on a quest to reveal the torrid secrets of the planet that takes its name from the Roman goddess of love.

7. ESA’s vision: exploring the depths of space

ESA scientific satellites now play a key role in the observation of the Sun and its influence on the Earth, in star-mapping and in revealing the universe through infrared and x-ray photography. The future potential is enormous, from the mining of raw materials on the Moon and on asteroids, to the extraction of solar energy from space-based installations, and the siting of inhabited stations on other celestial bodies.

Admittedly, all of this is still science fiction. In the coming decades we will see just how much will become reality and what will remain fiction. ESA is already working on a visionary programme of solar system exploration called Aurora in which it is also planned to send Europeans to the Moon and Mars.

What possible attraction could there be for inhabitants of Earth in making a gruelling trip to an icy desert world? Some reasons one might give are: a fascination for the unknown; a passion for research; a desire to become acquainted with Earth’s neighbouring planets; humankind’s ancient longing to discover signs of life somewhere in the cosmos, even if these turn out to be no more than primitive forms from a time long past. Perhaps it is a combination of all these things.

Whatever the case may be, the age of great geographical discovery has now been consigned to the history books. The human urge to discover has now assumed a cosmic dimension. Human flights to Mars are now within our grasp. Our blue planet is currently home to someone who is set to enter into the annals of world history by becoming the Columbus of this extraterrestrial world. And the European Space Agency, whose thirtieth birthday we now celebrate, will most certainly have its role to play in that.

For further information, please contact :
ESA Media Relations Division
Tel: +33(0)
Fax: +33(0)

SpaceRef staff editor.