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Useful Notes / ESA

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ESA, the European Space Agency, was formed in 1975 by the merger of two previous European spaceflight organizations, ELDO and ESRO. Nowadays, it has 20 member states and consists of the national space organizations of said member countries and of a few central institutions. While long cooperating with the European Union, it is actually not a subset or branch of said organization, though it reflects the ideals of European integration and international cooperation in a very similar way (this is part of the reason why several members of ESA are not members of the EU).

In the pre-ESA days, the space initiatives of European countries used spaceports based in Europe, east Africa and Australia. Since the 1970s, Kourou in French Guiana has been chosen as the site of the main European spaceport. After ESA formed in 1975, it inherited the spaceport ("Guiana Space Centre") and co-administers it with the French government and the launch vehicle providers.


Despite a history of setbacks and lower budgets than those available to the Americans and Russians, ESA has enjoyed successes with its many ambitious space probe missions (Giotto, Mars Express, Venus Express, Rosetta, etc.), the Ariane and Vega series of launch vehicles, the orbital laboratories Spacelab (flown aboard NASA's Space Shuttle) and Columbus (part of the ISS), as well as the man-rated ATV resupply spacecraft.

In a Moment of Awesome for ESA, NASA has struck a deal with it about providing a licensed version of the ATV's propulsion module for the MPCV Orion manned spacecraft. Another major success in recent times was the Rosetta mission, in which the titular probe not only surveyed a comet up close, but also successfully sent down its lander Philae to its surface. The lander performed the first ever (soft) landing on a comet in history.


In 2014, ESA celebrated 50 years of history.

Official website of the agency

Official YouTube channel of the agency

Official Facebook site of the agency

Tropes about ESA:

  • Cash Cow Franchise: Ariane, sort of... The early days of the Ariane series of rockets were rough and uncertain, but ever since the Ariane 4 established itself as a dependable commercial launcher in the late 80s and early 90s, the Ariane series became one of the most profitable commercial launch vehicles around. The Ariane 5, while originally developed for more grandiose purposes and being somewhat pricier to construct, has taken on Ariane 4's mantel with great success and launches clusters of multiple commercial and scientific satellites on a regular basis. The currently in-development Ariane 6 is planned as a mid-range supplement to the heavier Ariane 5, as well as the lighter Vega. Nowadays, there are also concerns about the Ariane launchers being able to stay competitive with newly rising spaceflight companies, such as SpaceX. (As a small tip, you can watch Ariane launches live or on archived videos at this website.)
  • Character Blog: The comet-chasing space probe Rosetta has an in-character Twitter account. The trope is averted in her main mission blog, though.
  • Cool Ship: The ATV automatic resupply spacecraft. Especially given its track record, technical capabilities and NASA taking it on as its service module (for use on their currently developed MPCV Orion capsule). A blog dedicated to the ATV project can be found here. You can also find out more about the vehicle from this handy little booklet in .pdf format.
  • Lightning Bruiser: The general reputation of the Ariane 5 among current heavy launch vehicles.
  • The Federation/Multinational Team : Unlike NASA, JAXA, RKA, CNSA or ISRO, ESA is not a single national space agency, but more like a space agency of space agencies—an international organization tightly incorporating the national space agencies or space research bureaus of its European member states. Even non-European countries, including the likes of Canada, Israel and Turkey, also have close cooperation agreements with ESA, and of course NASA and ESA have a close working relationship.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Originally quite pronounced, both with the Americans and Russians. Due to the effects of The Great Politics Mess-Up and Society Marches On in the recent two decades, this trope has by-and-large made way for increasingly mutual cooperation between all three space agencies.
  • Interplanetary Voyage: So far, most of the agency's spacecraft haven't ventured too far out of the inner Solar System. However, the involvement of ESA in ambitious space probe missions has only been continually increasing over the years.
  • No Budget: Actually a rather large budget, of 4 billion euros, it is still small fry compared to that of NASA. The head of the Beagle team remarked, when Curiosity touched down on Mars, that he found the images of the large NASA control room quite touching, since Beagle's control room had been three men in a cupboard. Unlike NASA, however, the ESA's budget had steadily increased since its inception, so this trope is averted these days.
  • Pintsized Powerhouse: The new Vega class of lighter, more inexpensive rockets was developed precisely because ESA was in need of a commercial and scientific satellite launcher that wouldn't be as demanding as the Ariane 5. While the Ariane series has a high quality and successful pedigree, it is often too overpowered or overengineered for many simpler, less demanding missions.
  • Science Hero: It was kind of ESA's hat in the eyes of other space agencies, especially during its earlier history, when it was far more dependent on others in terms of launch capabilities. The stereotype went that ESA is just a lazy freeloader who can't do any flights on his own, yet is obsessed with making experiments and astronomical surveys in Earth orbit, etc. Though the stereotype has died down in the last two decades thanks to increasing advances towards a fully European launch/spaceflight capability and ESA's contributions to the ISS, ESA is still often seen as a "astronomy and research first, spaceflight tech second" space agency. In fairness, the slower pace of the technology developments was and is mainly due to the international character of the agency and the smaller budgets it has for such things when compared with the Americans or the Russians.
  • Spiritual Successor: ESA is one to ELDO and ESRO. The Ariane series of rockets is this to the 1960s Europa launch vehicle programme. (The Europa launchers themselves were successors to the collected working launch vehicles of the 1960s British, French and German space programmes, e.g. the Blue Streak, Diamant, etc.)
  • Theme Naming: ESA sure loves this trope! Observe...
    • Fun with Acronyms
      • The research satellite SMART-1 (Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology-1).
      • The solar research probe SOHO (Reference to London or simply the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory? You be the judge!).
      • The research satellite PROBA (Project for On-Board Autonomy).
      • The research satellite EURECA (European Retrievable Carrier).
      • The proposed space probe AIDA (Yes, a punny reference to the Verdi opera, otherwise meaning Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment).
      • The gamma ray research satellite INTEGRAL (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory).
      • The newer and smaller cousin of the Canadarm 2 on the ISS is the European Robotic Arm - ERA.
      • The planned space telescope CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite).
      • Probably the king of this trope when it comes to ESA: The recently announced space probe JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer).
    • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming
      • The Ariane series of launch vehicles gets its name from Ariadne (from the Greek myth about Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete). "Ariane" is a French rendering of the name Ariadne. The Ariane series' predecessor, the Europa class of launch vehicles, was a double reference—to the continent of Europe itself and to the mythological female character the continent was named after, Europa.
      • The joint NASA/ESA space probe Ulysses was, obviously, named after the protagonist of Homer's The Odyssey (in this case, the Latin rendering of Odysseus' name; this was at ESA's insistence, as the Americans had wanted to call it Odysseus, but the Europeans wanted to use the Latin as a reference to The Divine Comedy, since the mythological character appears in the Inferno under the Latin name).
      • The 1980s/1990s telecommunications satellite Olympus-1, referencing Mount Olympus.
      • Due to the Rosetta probe's name referencing the Rosetta Stone, ancient Egyptian names abound in the project. The probe's two custom-built photocameras are called OSIRIS. Much of the geography of comet 67P/Churymuvo-Gerasimenko received names based on Egyptian deities (with regions such as Bastet, Hapi, Seth, Nut, Ma'at, Anubis, Serqet) or Rosetta Stone related Egyptian geography (Philaes original landing site, Agilkia - after the eponymous island; Philaes final landing site, Abydos - one of the oldest Egyptian cities; Rosettas final landing site, Sais - the Rosetta Stone's possible original location).
    • Literary Allusion Title
      • The proposed Don Quijote space probe, for testing forced impacts into asteroids that could be used to deflect said space objects. The probe consists of a separate, orbiting, "onlooker" section dubbed Sancho, and an impactor section, Hidalgo. Given the names and roles, you probably know what famous scene from Cervantes' novel is being referred to...
    • Stellar Name
      • The recently introduced smaller and lighter launch vehicle Vega, named after the famous bright star.
    • Named After Somebody Famous
      • The cometary probe Giotto, named after the Italian Renaissance painter and architect. It was the only probe out of a competing group of five to fly closely to Halley's Comet in 1986 and examine it from a fairly close distance. An early Moment of Awesome for ESA.
      • The Planck space observatory, named in tribute of Nobel Prize winning German physicist and father of quantum physics theory, Max Planck.
      • The Herschel infrared space telescope. Named after Sir William Herschel, of course.
      • A subversion of this is the XMM-Newton space observatory. While it's obvious who the second half of the name refers to, the acronym XMM stands for "X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission". Phew.
      • Another unusual rendering of a "named after a personality" spacecraft name is the proposed MarcoPolo-R space probe. Xtreme Kool Letterz, anyone? Who knows what the medieval Venetian explorer would think about it all...
      • The Huygens landing module of NASA's Saturn-observing Cassini space probe. Named after Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, it was the first ever (and so far only) spacecraft to land on Saturn's moon Titan and briefly explore it. The naming is rather appropriate, since Huygens the astronomer discovered Titan and did a lot of early astronomic work concerning Saturn and its environs.
      • The main European module of the ISS is the Columbus, named after Christopher Columbus.
      • As a sadder, What Could Have Been example, the original concept for the otherwise succesful cometary exploration probe Rosetta was a bit more ambitious than the finished product. The original probe's name? Appropriately enough, Champolion, after the French linguist who deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Both the name of the unrealized earlier concept and that of the eventually launched mission were supposed to reflect that comets are a kind of "cosmic Rosetta Stone", capable of revealing interesting data about the evolution and composition of our Solar System.
      • The planned ESA and JAXA probe mission to Mercury, BepiColombo. Don't let the cute-sounding name fool you. Its namesake was Italian engineer Giuseppe Colombo, known among his pals and colleaugues as "Bepi". Colombo's main claim to fame was the invention of the gravity-assist maneuver, a staple of space probe missions and practical astronautics since the 1960s. He also served as a scientific consultant for NASA's Mariner 10 mission and ESA's aforementioned Giotto mission. Bepi Colombo, a ion thruster powered probe, is due launch in October 2018. It will spend much of the 2020s exploring Venus and Mercury on a slow, gradual orbit-insert mission.
      • Each of the five ATV resupply spacecraft is named after a European visionary, usually scientists:
      • Jules Verne (2008)—The ship even carried an original 19th century copy of the author's novel From the Earth to the Moon aboard during its flight.
      • Johannes Kepler (2011)
      • Edoardo Amaldi (2012)
      • Albert Einstein (2013)
      • Georges Lemaître (2014)
    • Shout-Out Theme Naming
    • Some ESA projects even show overlaps between styles of theme naming. Here are two examples out of many:
  • What Could Have Been: Sadly, ESA has had far too many spacecraft projects that didn't come to fruition, especially during a technology development slump it experienced in The '80s and part of The '90s.
    • The most famous of these unrealized projects were various smaller manned vehicles, including the Hermes space shuttle, to be launched by the Ariane 5 rocket, and various other winged or capsule-shaped shuttles for flights to and from the ISS. Ironically, during the 1990s, the agency got stuck with a well-developed, powerful launch vehicle in the form of the Ariane 5, but with no manned payloads to launch. This necessitated the refocusing of payload plans once the rocket entered service. Ariane 5 got the last laugh when it returned to one of its original design objectives in the 2000s, with one of its variants being used for launching the Automated Transfer Vehicle (unmanned, but man-rated).
    • Before the Columbus orbital lab came to fruition in the 2000s as a research module of the International Space Station, it went through at least 20 years of convoluted Development Hell. The most famous phase of its earlier development life was the Columbus MTFF (Man-Tended Free Flyer). It was intended as an advanced evolution of the Spacelab modules (carried by the NASA Space Shuttles on some missions) and would have effectively formed its own small research station in low Earth orbit. When the costs proved prohibitive, ESA abandoned the MTFF concept. The Hermes shuttle was cancelled not long after (also in the early 1990s), and the Columbus project entered a limbo of being archived and resurrected numerous times since then. When the ISS plans emerged, a newer and simplified version of the idea was eventually approved. The finished, contemporary Columbus only includes the Attached Pressurized Module segment of the former 1980s concept.
    • Several interesting space probe missions got canned too or put away on indefinite hiatus. In a bit of luck, most of them avoided this fate and only got downscaled, usually losing a formerly planned specialized sub-probe in the process. Rosetta is one example, originally being planned to carry two landers (though the other one would have been NASA-built, apparently).
    • During the Hermes planning process in the late 1980s, there were some plans for ESA extravehicular spacesuits, partly derived from NASA's existing EMU suits. Here's a study on the idea (see pages 16 and 17).
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: The IXV (Intermediate EXperimental Vehicle), a testbed demonstrator for future unmanned spaceplane developments. It was launched atop a Vega rocket on the 11 February 2015 for an orbital test flight and subsequent safe de-orbiting (making it one of the first ESA spacecraft utilising a heat shield and being capable of returning back to Earth). After an hour and a half of operations, the IXV landed safely in the Pacific Ocean near South America. That makes it ESA's first finished and first successful spaceplane.

ESA in the media and in fiction:

  • Frequently appears in the news on SciShow.
  • Once upon a time..., a series of short, storybook-style cartoons about Rosetta and Philae, made for ESA by Design & Data Gmb H. Watch them here. The cartoon counterparts of the probe and its lander are the very definition of adorkable. Their "grandfather" Giotto also makes an appearance in a flashback to 1986 in one of the later episodes, where it's also revealed that he himself is the Narrator All Along. Other famous cometary probes also make cameo appearances in the flashback. The cartoon's final episode was aired shortly after the end of the Rosetta mission. A look behind the scenes is available here.
  • One of the main participating parties in the "grand tour" mission of Space Odyssey Voyage To The Planets is ESA. The other participants are NASA, RKA and CSA.
  • The 1991 simulation game E.S.S. Mega, developed by Coktel Vision and published by Tomahawk, was notable at the time for being a space sim that focused solely on ESA spacecraft, instead of their more famous NASA counterparts. One of the future spacecraft projects of ESA that was included in the sim was the Hermes space shuttle.
  • The freeware Orbiter spaceflight simulator has a lot of addons dealing with real, cancelled and fictional ESA projects, including various launch vehicles and unmanned and manned spacecraft. There's even a separate website dedicated to the ESA-themed (or European-themed) addons and mods. Are you sad that ESA never built the Hermes space shuttle or doesn't have a lunar base yet? With the appropriate addons installed, you can now remedy that!
  • Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 1969 live-action film Doppelgänger offers a pre-ESA example of a European space agency, from a late 1960s point of view. It's called EUROSEC (EUROpean Space Exploration Council) and its manned spacecraft include the SSTO Phoenix and the spaceplane Dove. Interestingly enough, since the Guiana Spaceport hadn't been chosen yet back then, the makers of the film surmised that a European space initiative might be launching its future spacecraft from a spaceport in southern Portugal. This isn't as kooky as it sounds, since it would be in one of the parts in Europe that are closest to the equator, which is a favourable location for most launches.
  • The ATV appears briefly on a table among various spacecraft models in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
  • Regrettably, in the 2007 Transformers movie, the Beagle 2 lander is presented as an American probe, created by NASA. Worse yet, it's outward appearance is completely different, more like that of the Spirit andOpportunity rovers. According to the film, the Decepticons were probably behind the probe's infamous malfunction, but it's kept rather vague.
  • The weird mid-1980s sci-fi horror film Lifeforce includes a "European Space Shuttle", presumably operated by ESA or its fictional equivalent. Oddly enough, that spacecraft visits Halley's Comet, of all places... The film came to theaters about a year before the Real Life Giotto probe visited the same comet.
  • Astronaut Alex Vogel in The Martian is a German member of the ESA for ARES III, NASA's third manned mission to Mars. At the end of the film, a British astronaut can be seen launching with ARES V.
  • Redout features the ESA-AGR racing team, founded as a branch of the ESA for testing prototype aircrafts during the Mars colonization. They were key players in the foundation of the SRRL, and according to the lore they are far and away the strongest SRRL team, with crafts that tend to have very balanced stats.