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.
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.