PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) turned 30 years old May 31 and celebrated the event with a silence like that found in deep space.

Such modesty reflects the difficulties of an agency that refuses to polish its public image for fear of stealing the limelight from its member states, most of which have their own national space agencies that jealously guard their domestic reputations.

ESA thus keeps the lowest-possible profile to avoid upsetting its shareholders. When criticized by individual European governments, it is reluctant to defend itself. Examples:

– The exploits of European astronauts are publicized almost exclusively in the astronauts’ home countries. Nary a word is spoken elsewhere, despite the fact that for several years now the only astronauts in Europe are those representing ESA.

– More than a decade after ESA governments other than France assumed a majority of the financing of the Ariane 5 launch system, it still is known even in places in Europe as the “French rocket.”

– The early discussion in Britain of ESA’s highly successful Mars Express orbiter was focused almost exclusively on the loss of the British-built Beagle 2 lander, which represented only a small portion of the total mission. Government inquiries in Britain concluded that ESA was partly to blame for Beagle 2’s failure, despite the fact that the agency bailed out the lander project when its British financing ran out.

The difficulty of European political leaders to acknowledge that most noteworthy European space exploits are ESA-managed and would not be possible without ESA was made clear June 1 when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder visited ESA’s Esoc space operations facility in Darmstadt, Germany.

Schroeder did not lay out any new program proposals. The news was that he showed up. It was the first time a German chancellor had visited Esoc, and the first time any European head of state had made a speech at any ESA facility.

ESA has two centers in Germany, including its astronaut training facility, as well as a headquarters in France, a technology center in the Netherlands, its Earth observation program management in Italy and an astronomy center in Spain.

Schroeder, facing a tough re-election campaign in September, perhaps predictably said little about ESA in his remarks, focusing instead on what Germany’s space investment has produced in Germany, including 8,000 to 10,000 space-sector jobs. He said Germany wants to promote a high-technology industry and is proud that 15,000 Chinese students are studying at German universities, many in scientific fields.

The number of Chinese students in Germany may not be the first thing ESA observers think of at a ceremony to mark the agency’s 30th birthday.

It was left to ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who welcomed Schroeder to Esoc, to remind his audience of what the agency has been doing for 30 years, and what it is doing now.

ESA gave birth to Europe’s successful meteorological agency, Eumetsat — headquartered in Germany. Two highly profitable satellite-fleet operators — telecommunications operator Eutelsat S.A. of Paris and mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat plc of London were both created by ESA as intergovernmental treaty organizations. Both of those companies are planning to go public soon with initial offerings of publicly traded stock.

The agency is in the midst of what even its managers say is a near-uncanny run of science program successes, including Ulysses, the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO), Soho, Integral, Smart-1 and more recently Mars Express. The one major failure — of the Cluster satellites, during the maiden-flight crash of the Ariane 5 rocket in 1996 — was set right when ESA science managers found the money to rebuild the satellites, which were successfully launched and continue to operate.

“ESA… is the only space agency in the world today currently orbiting both the Moon and Mars, to have landed on [Saturn’s moon] Titan, to be chasing comets and soon to be setting out for Venus at the end of the year,” Dordain said, according to a text provided by ESA after the event. “We have… a very competitive industry in which two-thirds of its activity is devoted to governmental, and one-third to commercial, programs. This figure — one-third commercial — incidentally is the world record. No other space industry in the world is able to make the same claim.”


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.