WASHINGTON – In an effort to seek independent access to space, a coalition of 10 western European nations founded the European Space Agency (ESA), and in doing so created the foundation for a top space science program and a commercial launch stalwart.

Established May 31, 1975, ESA formed from the merger of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) and the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). Both organizations were founded in the early 1960s and at the time of their merger included the same 10 Western European member nations that pooled their resources to form ESA, the ESA Web site said.

Roy Gibson, ESRO’s last director general and ESA’s first, praised ESRO for easing ESA’s establishment. “ESA would have had a hard time coming into being without the existence of ESRO,” he said in a May 19 e-mail.

The first satellite launch completed under ESA management, the gamma-ray-scanning Cos-B satellite that launched on a U.S. Thor Delta rocket, began with ESRO, the ESA Web site said.

ESRO successfully launched seven science satellites itself, about half of the number initially planned, according to the Web site. In ESRO’s final years, meetings and the merger slowed the science program’s progress, Gibson said.

But while ESRO had established itself as a force in the space science community, ELDO faltered. The organization was unable to produce a rocket capable of consistently orbiting satellites.

“The history of ELDO in the 1960s was one of technological failure, cost overruns and political dispute,” the ESA Web site said.

Britain, France and Germany built stages one through three of the Europa launch vehicle family, respectively. A launch site was established in Woomera, Australia, and was later replaced by another at Kourou, French Guiana, the Web site said.

Europa 1 completed only one successful flight and never orbited a satellite, the ESA Web site said.
Europa 2 launched only once, in November 1971; its explosion about 150 seconds after ignition proved to be the undoing of the launcher – and of ELDO, the Web site said.

After the failure, Britain, which had built Europa, pulled out of launcher development, and Germany questioned the wisdom of developing a European rocket, according to the ESA Web site.

“The whole was a recipe for failure, in my view,” Gibson said.

“I suppose ESRO was easier than ELDO in some respects,” though he said he is “not really qualified to pass judgment on ELDO.”

ELDO had well-qualified people who were placed in difficult circumstances, Gibson said.

A merger between ESRO and ELDO first was discussed in 1972, the ESA Web site said. Financing for ESA also was established that year; member nations were required to contribute to research spacecraft – based on their respective gross national product – while funding was voluntarily for applications-based satellites, the Web site said. A key factor of ESA was that certain member nations could control their favored programs: launch vehicles for France, manned space projects for Germany, and telecommunications for Britain, Gibson said.

Despite facing problems in creating a new launch vehicle, France continued to push.

French officials said the United States was determined to dominate the commercial launch market, the ESA Web site said. That claim was supported in 1972 when the United States told Europe it would give more difficult terms for the French- and German-built Symphonie 1 if the experimental geostationary communications satellite was to be used commercially, the Web site said.

“This certainly strengthened Europe’s resolve to go ahead with its own launcher,” Gibson said.

Just three months after Europa 2’s cancellation in April 1973, France introduced plans for its L3S launch vehicle, later called Ariane. The vehicle was largely based on the predevelopmental Europa 3 rocket, the ESA Web site said.

With the successful launch of the first Ariane 1 rocket in 1979, ESA finally lofted a satellite into space. In the years since, the Ariane rocket family, which now includes the heavy-lift Ariane 5, has provided Europe independent access to space and the multibillion-dollar commercial launch market.

Comments: cparks@space.com


May 29, 1955: The Soviet Union announces that it is researching a method of using hydrogen fusion for spacecraft propulsion.

May 28, 1964: The SA-6 unmanned Apollo capsule launches on a Saturn 1 rocket from Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

May 30, 1966: NASA’s Surveyor 1 launches from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on an Atlas-Centaur rocket. The Surveyor 1 lander, which made the first U.S. soft lunar landing, performed experimental and observational studies in preparation for the Apollo missions.

June 1, 1970: NASA completes phase A study evaluations for the space shuttle.

1971: Mariner 9, the first man-made object to orbit another planet, launches on an Atlas-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a journey to Mars.

May 26, 1983: The European Space Agency’s European X-ray Observatory Satellite (Exosat) launches on a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Exosat measured characteristics of the sources of cosmic X-rays.

1990: Roentgensatellit, or Rosat, a joint German-U.S.-U.K. X-ray scanning spacecraft, launches on a Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

1998: China launches its Chinastar-1 telecommunications satellite on a Long March 3B rocket from Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

1999: An Indian Space Research Organisation Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lofts India’s OceanSat 1 ocean-monitoring satellite, South Korea’s Kitsat-3 and Germany’s DLR-Tubsat from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota.

2002: Israel launches its Ofeq-5 spy satellite on a Shavit rocket from Palmahim Air Force Base.

May 31, 2005: Russia’s Foton-M2 launches on a Soyuz U rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying multiple microgravity experiments, which were retrieved successfully a few days later.

May 27, 2006: An Ariane 5 rocket launches Mexico’s Satmex 6 and Thailand’s Thaicom 5 telecommunications satellites from Kourou, French Guiana.

Clinton Parks is the web producer for SpaceNews.com and copy editor for SpaceNews. He is responsible for copy editing and curation for the SpaceNews.com website, and page design, copy editing in the weekly newspaper. He also contributes to specialty...