If there is one enduring example of international cooperation in the space field it is, without doubt, the European Space Agency (ESA), which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

The existence of ESA has enabled Europe to develop a comprehensive world class space program of a size and complexity that would have been virtually impossible for any individual European nation to achieve. It has also allowed Europe to coordinate its overall space strategy, leading to an avoidance of duplication of effort and consequently a more efficient utilization of the financial resources its member nations are prepared to devote to civil space activities. Over the years its individual programs have provided a major stimulus to European industry, requiring the development of cutting edge technologies and sophisticated management and operations practices.

As it enters its fourth decade the Agency is seeking to redefine itself against a rapidly evolving geopolitical climate both within Europe and on a broader stage, and in an environment of constrained government spending on civil space activities. It faces major decisions in a number of area, e.g. the future of human spaceflight, the next generation of European launcher and the role it should play with respect to European security matters. It is to be expected however that ESA will remain one of the foremost civil space agencies on the planet and will continue to play a significant role in all aspects of the space sector.

European institutional cooperation in space activities was formalized in 1964. In that year the European Space Research Organization and the European Launcher Development Organization were set up. The European Space Research Organization originally was focused on the development of scientific satellites, while the European Launcher Development Organization had responsibility for the development of a European launch vehicle.

In 1972 it was agreed that European Space Research Organization would maintain its science program as a core activity, participated in by all member states, but also would become involved in applications satellites, those same states opting whether or not to take part in such programs. A year later, following a string of launcher development problems, the European Launcher Development Organization ‘s Europa program was discontinued. However, at the urging of France, which felt that it was mandatory for Europe to develop an autonomous space access capability, it was decided to initiate a new launcher development effort that ultimately evolved into the highly successful Ariane program.

Developing Spacelab

Around the same time it also was agreed that the European Space Research Organization would become involved in manned space activities through the development of Spacelab, Europe’s contribution to the U.S. National Space Transportation System (the shuttle). With the subsequent decision to merge the two organizations ESA became a reality.

ESA started operation May 31, 1975, although its Convention, the legal instrument under which it operates, did not enter into force until October 30, 1980, when the last of its founders completed their ratification process. As an intergovernmental organization, it has grown over the years from its original 10 founders to its current membership of 16 nations . (Luxembourg is scheduled to become the 17th by year’s end ). It also has entered into a long running Cooperation Agreement with Canada, under which Canada participates in many of ESA’s optional programs as if it were a member state.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,)> Over the years ESA programs have grown both in diversity and complexity, to the point where it currently possesses a high level of capability in all aspects of space with the exception of the transport of humans to and from low Earth orbit .

ESA flies world class science, meteorological and remote sensing missions; develops cutting-edge satellite telecommunications capability; carries out a comprehensive microgravity program; and has developed four generations of the Ariane launch vehicle. Recently, in conjunction with the European Union, it has initiated the development of a European satellite navigation system, Galileo.

In the human spaceflight arena, building on the expertise obtained through the Spacelab program, numerous astronaut flights on the U.S. shuttle, the Russian Soyuz and the Mir space station, a number of member states, operating through ESA, became partners in the international s pace station program. Over the years ESA’s role has expanded beyond that of only developing the European Columbus laboratory module and its associated utilization program. It now encompasses the supply of other critical pieces of station hardware (nodes, cupola, etc.) and the provision of logistics re-supply services through the development of the Automated Transfer Vehicle, due to enter service in the near future.

In the field of space exploration, ESA has been working on the formulation of its own vision for future exploration, the so-called Aurora program, which encompasses a carefully coordinated set of robotic and manned missions to the Moon and Mars, on a timetable similar to that of the United States.

Over the years ESA’s annual budget, while considerably smaller than that of NASA, has accounted for the major portion of civil space spending on the part of its member states. Some of the larger states such as France and Germany also maintain their own space agencies, while some of the smaller ones such as Belgium, Ireland and Switzerland have opted to make their investment in civil space almost exclusively through the agency.

In the case of the smaller states this approach has provided them with the opportunity to participate in numerous significant programs that they could not afford to have undertaken on a national basis, given the level of investment they are prepared to make. Currently ESA has the second highest budget of any civil space agency, after that of NASA, in the region of 3 billion Euros ( $3.68 billion).

Unlike NASA and many national space agencies, ESA until recently has had no involvement in military space programs. The ESA Convention states that the agency will work on programs that are for “exclusively peaceful purposes,” and this has, in the past, been interpreted to mean “non-military.”

With the closer ties the agency is developing with the European Union, such as the Galileo program, and a desire to best amortize the investment of the European taxpayer in space activities, this issue is now being revisited. ESA now has established a security office within its headquarters to deal with such matters.

Two-tiered system

As was previously mentioned, the expansion of European Space Research Organization ‘s role from dealing only with scientific satellites into the area of applications and later launcher development and human spaceflight resulted in the adoption of a two-tier program structure. Science and other basic functions of the organization became mandatory programs with all member states contributing to their funding on a gross national product-related basis.

All other programs were optional meaning that member states could choose whether or not they wished to participate and, if so, the level of contribution they wished to make to that program’s budget. This program structure was carried over into ESA, has worked well over the years and is generally considered to be one of the strengths of the agency’s mode of operation.

Another issue that has served ESA well in the past but now is coming under some scrutiny is the agency’s “Juste Retour” or Just Return principle. This is a mechanism that ensured each member state that the level of contributions it made to individual ESA programs would be reflected in the contracts returned to its industry. For the larger programs European industry would form itself into consortia, the makeup of which reflected the expected partitioning of the program’s budget among the different nations.

In recent years this process has come into question on two fronts. With the consolidation of European industry across borders, some major companies now possess all the necessary expertise to carry out major ESA contracts in-house. The establishment of consortia is therefore no longer mandatory. This can create a problem for smaller companies in some individual nations whose expertise is focused in a particular area.

Furthermore the European Union, with whom the agency is working more and more closely, has a different industrial policy that does not operate on the basis of Juste Retour . This issue is being debated between the two entities and a resolution is hoped for in the not too distant future.

Over the years international cooperation has been a major tenet of ESA operations. At one time or another the agency has had cooperative programs with virtually all of the world’s major space agencies. Such cooperation has involved all major program areas with the exception of launcher development. To date the agency’s principle cooperative partner has been NASA, and this association has, in the vast majority of instances, proved of benefit to both parties.

Unfortunately, the current export control environment in the United States is causing some in Europe to question this approach and to suggest that ESA look elsewhere when seeking partners for future missions.

And what of the future? The agency for some time has been working with the European Union to craft a single overarching space policy for Europe. The European Union, not all of whose members are m ember s tates of ESA, now recognizes the agency as its de-facto space agency for the implementation of the space component of its plans.

In the areas of space science, Earth observation and telecommunications, comprehensive program plans have been formulated for the coming years. Work also is underway to determine the path Europe should follow in launcher development, both unmanned and manned, and plans for future solar system exploration are being discussed. These plans will include human space activities in the post-international space station era.

In developing all these activities, ESA will have to be mindful of the budget situation it is likely to face for the foreseeable future, similar to that facing NASA. The member states are unlikely to provide any large infusion of new funding beyond the current annual level.

ESA has a 30-year history of which it can be justifiably proud. With three decades of experience it has developed a reputation for carrying out world class missions in all areas and has matured into a space agency of the first rank, which it will hopefully remain.

Ian Pryke is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Aerospace Policy Research in the School of Public Policy of George Mason University. He had a 34-year career in the European Space Research Organization and ESA, the last 24 spent at ESA’s Washington Office.