European Space Agency Is Formed

The European Space Agency became a model of international cooperation by uniting many European countries to reach common scientific and commercial goals in space technology.

Summary of Event

At the dawn of the space age in 1957, the United States and the Soviet Union began to develop space programs, and the larger countries of Europe, such as France and Great Britain, followed suit. While the two superpowers could focus on orbiting satellites, large rocket launcher facilities, placing human beings into orbit, and the race to the moon, Europe had to satisfy itself with the launching of small sounding rockets into the upper atmosphere to study such phenomena as the aurora borealis. European Space Agency;establishment
[kw]European Space Agency Is Formed (July 31, 1973)
[kw]Space Agency Is Formed, European (July 31, 1973)
European Space Agency;establishment
[g]Europe;July 31, 1973: European Space Agency Is Formed[01230]
[g]Belgium;July 31, 1973: European Space Agency Is Formed[01230]
[c]Science and technology;July 31, 1973: European Space Agency Is Formed[01230]
[c]Spaceflight and aviation;July 31, 1973: European Space Agency Is Formed[01230]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 31, 1973: European Space Agency Is Formed[01230]
Amaldi, Edoardo
Auger, Pierre
Gaulle, Charles de
Gibson, Roy
Macmillan, Harold
Merbold, Ulf

As early as 1960, some Europeans working in the field of space science saw the need for space agencies of various European countries to work together in order to sponsor larger projects. Scientists Edoardo Amaldi of Italy and Pierre Auger of France witnessed the success of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN; later known as the Organisation Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research), an organization of European countries dedicated to nuclear research. Because of the pooled monies and efforts from the governments and scientists of many European countries, CERN CERN was able to build many powerful particle accelerators. Amaldi and Auger thought it might be possible to also have such an organization for space research.

On June 14, 1963, the European Space Research Organization European Space Research Organization (ESRO) was formed. Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and West Germany were the initial members, followed later by Denmark. Norway and Austria agreed to be nonparticipating associate members. ESRO had a rocket engineering center in the Netherlands, a computer center in West Germany, and a research laboratory in Italy. Dedicated to space science research, ESRO had no plans to place human beings into space. Whenever it needed launcher facilities to place large satellites into space, it did so with the help of the United States. From 1964 until its demise in 1972, ESRO sent seven satellites into orbit around Earth and sent a total of 183 small sounding rockets into the upper atmosphere. In the realm of atmospheric studies, ESRO was a success.

ESRO was not the only European space cooperative of the 1960’s. Many European countries, in particular France, sought to go beyond small-scale space science studies. On January 30, 1961, President Charles de Gaulle of France met with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain to discuss the possibility of the two countries working together to build a rocket launcher. No longer would Europe have to rely on the United States for such facilities. In February of 1964, the European Launcher Development Organization European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO) was formed. Australia, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and West Germany signed the agreement, with Switzerland and Denmark as nonparticipating associate members. Australia would provide Woomera Range as a launching site. Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands would develop the test satellites, guidance systems, and communications. Britain would be responsible for the first stage of the launcher, France for the second stage, and West Germany for the third stage. There were eleven ELDO launches in all. Ten Europa I rockets were launched from the Woomera Range, and one Europa II rocket was sent from Kourou, French Guiana, on November 5, 1971, but none of the launches successfully put a satellite into orbit.

As early as the late 1960’s, many European representatives of both ESRO and ELDO were dissatisfied. Some claimed that ESRO stressed space science and small projects over rocket launcher development and larger projects. Many scientists and politicians were irritated over having to rely on the United States for launchers. Others looked to ELDO’s string of failures and pointed out that ELDO had neither an effective central authority nor enough money to do what it had originally planned. As the money allocated to ESRO was to run out in the early 1970’s, some representatives of smaller countries expressed their dissatisfaction with programs that required all member countries to fully participate in all approved projects, whether or not they would receive direct benefits from these projects.

Since its founding, the European Space Agency has collaborated with NASA on a number of projects. In this 1983 photograph, Europe’s first astronaunt, Ulf Merbold, works inside the science module in the Columbia payload bay during the Spacelab 1 mission.


In June of 1967, the European Space Committee (ESC) met in Rome, Italy, to study the problems associated with ESRO and ELDO. In November of 1968, in Bad Godesberg, West Germany, a second ESC met and decided that the best solution would be to fuse ESRO and ELDO into one organization to be called the European Space Agency (ESA). A plan was developed that addressed Europe’s need for the production of a successful rocket launcher and the subsequent launching of scientific and telecommunications satellites. Delegates of the ESC were chosen to iron out any difficulties and come up with specific programs that would reach the stated goals. At a meeting held in Brussels, Belgium, in December of 1972, a revised plan was submitted. Special projects included a plan whereby France would develop its launcher Ariane to replace Europa. West Germany would cooperate with American scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to build Spacelab, a unit dedicated to scientific experiments that would be sent into space by NASA’s space shuttle. The United Kingdom would develop a maritime communications satellite. The United Kingdom was also the source for ESA’s first director-general, Roy Gibson, who was formerly director-general of ESRO.

The most significant aspect of the structure of ESA was its flexibility. Participating countries were required to contribute to ESA according to the size of their gross national products. This mandatory program would cover the general budget of ESA, its technological research, fellowships, and science program. Member countries of ESA could then select optional programs in which they were willing to participate, and separate agreements among participants would determine the amount each would pay and what benefits each would accrue.

The formation of ESA was made official on July 31, 1973, in Brussels, Belgium. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and West Germany became the charter members of ESA, with Finland and Canada as associate members. Finland later became a full member along with Greece, Portugal, and Luxembourg.


With the establishment of ESA, Europe became the third-largest space power in the world after the United States and the Soviet Union. By the early twenty-first century, its budget was second only to that of NASA. ESA’s projects have been noteworthy successes. ESA assisted NASA with the Hubble Space Telescope Hubble Space Telescope by building the Faint Object Camera, and the agency also assisted NASA with the International Solar Polar Mission by building the Ulysses Ulysses (spacecraft) spacecraft. ESA’s Giotto Giotto (spacecraft) spacecraft was sent up to study Comet Halley in 1986. Ariane, the rocket launcher developed by France, had the largest payload capability of any launcher of its time; it was the most utilized series of launchers for commercial satellites during the 1980’s, 1990’s, and early twenty-first century. In 2001, ESA inaugurated its Aurora program, aimed at the human and robotic exploration of the solar system, with initial focus on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. A human expedition to Mars is planned for 2030.

The most publicized European success story began on September 24, 1973, in Washington, D.C., when West Germany signed an agreement with NASA to develop Spacelab for the U.S. space shuttle program. On November 28, 1983, Spacelab went into orbit with Europe’s first astronaut, West Germany’s Ulf Merbold, on board. Astronauts and cosmonauts During the ten-day flight, more than seventy scientific experiments were carried out by a seven-member crew. With these scientific and economic successes, Europe demonstrated to the world the benefits of international cooperation. European Space Agency;establishment

Further Reading

  • Arnold, H. J. P., ed. “Space for All: The End of the Superpower Monopoly.” In Man in Space: An Illustrated History of Space Flight. New York: Smithmark, 1993. Provides crucial information on the political situation that shaped the formation of ESA. Illustrated with plenty of color photographs.
  • Bonnet, Roger M., and Vittorio Manno. “The Birth of ESA” and “Governing Principles.” In International Cooperation in Space: The Example of the European Space Agency. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. While the entire book gives a clear picture of how ESA operates, these two chapters are good introductory material that explains ESA’s origins and structure.
  • “Europe in Space: The Emergence of ESA.” Sky and Telescope 49 (May, 1975): 284-302. Summarizes the history of ESRO and ELDO and the founding of ESA. Also details ESA’s major projects of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
  • Gibson, Roy. “National and Regional Space Activities: A Brief Survey.” In Space. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. From the former director-general of ESA comes a book that discusses its predecessors ESRO and ELDO.
  • Gibson, Roy, and Werner J. Kleen. “Europe’s ’NASA’ Gets off the Ground.” IEEE Spectrum 13 (February, 1976): 66-70. Technical and detailed account of ESA’s facilities and staff, as well as a listing of ESA’s major projects of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
  • Krige, John, Arturo Russo, and Laurenza Sebesta. A History of the European Space Agency, 1958-1987. 2 vols. Noordwijk, Netherlands: European Space Agency, 2000. The first volume presents the story of ESRO and ELDO (1958-1973); the second volume presents the story of ESA (1973-1987).
  • Woltjer, Lodewijk. Europe’s Quest for the Universe: ESO and the VLT, ESA and Other Projects. Les Ulis, France: EDP Sciences, 2006. Presents a history of Europe’s space projects and stresses the role of ESA.
  • Zabusky, Stacia E. “The European Space Agency and the Structure of Cooperation.” In Launching Europe: An Ethnography of European Cooperation in Space Science. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. An anthropological text on human cooperation, yet surprisingly helpful in showing how ESA is organized and what ESA’s goals are.

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International Ultraviolet Explorer Is Launched

Tracking and Data-Relay Satellite System Revolutionizes Space Communications

Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle

First Permanently Manned Space Station Is Launched

Space Probes Begin Examination of Comet Halley

NASA Launches the Hubble Space Telescope

NASA Launches the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

Endeavour Maps Earth from Space

International Space Station Is Manned