Our SpaceFlight Heritage: The European Space Agency marks 40 years since signing of Convention
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary since the signing of the Convention for the creation of a single European Space Agency in May 1975. With this historic document, an independent space capability began in Europe – one that dated back to the early 1960s when six European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) formed the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO ) to develop a heavy launcher, later called “Europa”.
This created the foundation for a much more substantial organization. These first six countries were joined by Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, which had established the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO ) a short time after. While their conventions were signed in 1962, they were not active until two years later.
Eleven years later, in 1975, another convention was signed – this one drafted at diplomatic and ministerial levels to create a single “European Space Agency”. This particular charter allowed the nascent organization to handle operational space applications systems, such as telecommunications satellites as well.
Both ESRO and ELDO closed shop, with the responsibilities of the former being carried out by what was now being called ESA. ELDO had already closed out its programs and was shut down. At this time, the pace of things accelerated with the last European Space Conference in Brussels, with European ministers adopting the final version of the ESA Convention on April 15, 1975, and that document being signed on Dec. 31, 1975.
ESRO and ELDO officials signed the agreement at the European Space Conference in Paris on May 30, 1975, and Ireland also signed in December 1975. Finally, the ESA convention entered into effect on Oct. 30, 1980 – with the ratification by France.
In 1986, Austria and Norway signed on, and they were joined in 1995 by Finland. Portugal signed up in 2000, Greece and Luxembourg joined five years later, the Czech Republic in 2008, Romania in 2011, and Poland in 2012. In February of 2015, Estonia and Hungary – the latest two members – became members of ESA with their signed accession agreements.
“Europe’s history of excellence in space is one of the most visible achievements of European cooperation in science and technology that started some 35 years ago,” said Prof. Reimar Lüst, in his introduction to the History of the European Space Agency.
If ESA is about anything, it can be considered to be about cooperation, with the organization working hand-in-hand with an array of other nations and international space agencies.
Since its formation, ESA has become one of the key members of the International Space Station project. It has been a core part of the Cassini-Huygens mission to the gas giant Saturn (with the Huygens lander touching down on Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005), and more-recently, it has sent the Philae lander, via the Rosetta spacecraft, to touch down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko last year.
“Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured a place in the history books: not only is it the first to rendezvous with and orbit a comet, but it is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.
This latest effort marks an agency that has made steady progress in its particular arena. Even now, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is serving on the space station, with the agency working to expand the frontiers of crewed and robotic exploration of the Solar System – and beyond.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.