By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This article is the first in a four-part series profiling space agencies around the world. This article profiles the European Space Agency’s history, membership organization, major facilities and budget details.
The European Space Agency (ESA) was founded in 1975 from the merger of the European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organization (ESRO).
Get started on your Space Studies Degree at American Military University.
ELDO was a partnership between six European countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. These countries had a common, united focus on building a heavy payload launcher called Europa.
ESRO was formed two years later in 1962 when those same six countries — as well as Denmark, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland — wanted to develop a satellite program independent of the work that ELDO was pursuing.
Eventually, these nations decided to merge the two space-related programs into one broad international space agency, the ESA.
The ESA defines its purpose as “to provide for, and to promote, for exclusively peaceful purposes, cooperation in European States in space research and technology and their space applications, with a view to their being used for scientific purposes and for operational space application systems.”
Current Members of the ESA
The ESA currently represents these countries:
- The Czech Republic
- The Netherlands
- The United Kingdom
Slovenia is an associate member, and Canada is also permitted to participate in ESA projects and missions. The ESA’s headquarters is in Paris, France.
Some European Space Agency Members Have Their Own Space Programs as Well
Despite the fact that the ESA represents and is funded by a consortium of European nations, its existence does not preclude any of its member states from developing and operating their own, independent national space programs. Some nations have chosen to create their own space programs.
For example, France maintains the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), a national space agency for the development of French space interests. Generally speaking, these separate space agencies operate in harmony with the ESA, and sometimes even partner with ESA on joint missions and programs.
The ESA Is Not Formally Connected to the EU, But Works Closely with It
The ESA is not formally affiliated with the European Union (EU), the economic supranational organization of Europe. But given the intertwined interests of the two entities (defense, security and economic development, for example), the EU and the ESA have traditionally worked closely together on the development of plans and strategies for the ESA, most notably the European Space Policy proposed in 2007. With the recent decision by the United Kingdom to leave the EU, the future stability of these types of relationships has been called into question.
ESA Has Work Sites Worldwide
In addition to the Paris headquarters where most senior-level offices are held, the space agency has several work sites throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world:
- The European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) is located in Noordwijk, Netherlands. It is where satellite project teams and testing facilities are housed, and it is the ESA’s main science and research hub.
- The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) is located in Darmstadt, Germany. Here, satellite control, monitoring and data retrieval take place.
- The European Space Research Institute (ESRIN) is located in Frascati, Italy. At this location, the Information Retrieval Service and the Earthnet program are based.
- The European Astronaut Centre (EAC) is located in Cologne, Germany. It is primarily a training center for mission crews.
- The European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) is located in Madrid, Spain. This center is a hub for scientific operations and archives.
- The Guiana Space Centre (GSC) is located in French Guiana. It is used as a launch site due to its proximity to the equator.
- The European Space Security and Education Center (ESEC) is located in Redu, Belgium. This facility houses the ESA’s cybersecurity services, the Proba mission control, space weather center, an e-robotics lab, and the ESA ground station.
- Finally, the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) is located in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. It supports research in telecom, integrated applications, climate change, technology and science.
Budget of the European Space Agency
In 2018, the ESA’s budget was ~€5.6 billon, or more than $6B USD, based on current exchange rates. Each member state contributes to ESA’s budget based on a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP).
The three largest contributors to the ESA budget in 2018 were France (24.2 percent), Denmark (23.1 percent) and Italy (11.8 percent). The UK contributed 8.4 percent, Estonia contributed 5.2 percent and Belgium contributed 5.1 percent. Most of the other members states contribute much smaller amounts (less than 1 percent each).
In 2018, the ESA budget was split between what are referred to as ‘mandatory’ and ‘optional’ space programs. Mandatory programs include basic activities such as future studies, technology research, technical investments, information systems and training initiatives. Optional programs cover areas such as Earth observation, telecommunications, satellite navigation and space transportation. The ESA’s contributions to the International Space Station (ISS) are part of the optional program budget as well.
Despite the ‘mandatory’ versus ‘optional’ distinction, the vast majority of the ESA’s budget is allocated to optional programs, as the mandatory objectives are not nearly as costly. For example, the largest budget line item is Earth observation at 26 percent. Next come space transportation and navigation at 19.8 percent and 14 percent, respectively. By comparison, the ESA’s ‘basic activities’ within their mandatory programs utilize only 4.2 percent of the total budget.
The ESA obviously has tremendous support and funding from its various member states. In the next installment of this article series, we’ll review how it has directed its resources through its official space policies from the 20th century and into the new millennium.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.