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Europe: ESA-membership

The European Space Agency, better known by its acronym ESA, is an international organisation based in Paris whose purpose is to develop a coherent European space programme in the fields of research and applications.

The ESA was created in 1975, following the decision to merge two pre-existing European bodies in the space field: the ELDO (European Launcher Development Organisation) and the ESRO (European Space Research Organisation), which themselves had been founded in the 1960's. Originally, the ESA focused primarily on safeguarding European political, scientific and economic interests, with a view to guaranteeing independent access to space and its various possibilities. One of the major focuses of the European space effort was therefore the development of a space launcher, the Ariane rocket.

The deed of foundation and the operating rules of the ESA are included in its Incorporating Agreement, which also defines the rights and duties of the Member States vis-à-vis the agency. The decision-making body of the agency is the Council, in which each Member State is represented. It meets on a quarterly basis. Every three years or so, the Council meets at a ministerial level in order to consolidate the major strategic orientations for the coming period. The Member States are also represented at the level of subordinate decision-making bodies, which prepare the work of the Council on specific matters (administration, finances, industrial policy, thematic programmes, etc.). The Federal Science Policy Office represents Belgium to the ESA.

The activities of the ESA are divided into mandatory programmes (to which each member subscribes in proportion to its relative economic weight) and optional programmes (to which each member freely subscribes as a function of the expected scientific and industrial benefits).

The major programme categories are as follows:

  • technology
  • launchers
  • manned space flight and microgravity
  • space science
  • earth observation
  • telecommunications
  • navigation

The role of the ESA is constantly evolving; its co-operation with other organisations, such as EUMETSAT (operational meteorology), has now been extended to the European Commission (navigation); its role vis-à-vis the European space industry, which is itself undergoing a complete reorganisation, is being reoriented towards a more comprehensive partnership. The ESA remains the primary driving force in the consolidation of scientific, technical and industrial space achievements in Europe.

Video: Meet ESA, the space agency for Europe

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