Space: the final frontier. For many millennia we have looked up to the sky, and what we saw far above us always had an enormous impact on our civilization. In the past, stars and astronomical events shaped our cultures, our religions, our perception of time and our pace of life. In the last decades mankind made its first, small steps into the great unknowns beyond Earth’s atmosphere, making achievements that shaped our society in ways inconceivable not even a lifetime ago.
In the second part of the 20th century, humanity’s relationship with space was shaped by geopolitical developments and technological breakthroughs, and in turn it changed the everyday life of billions of people. Currently, our global world depends on space more than ever, but the relationship between us and the cosmos is growing tighter and tighter. Any geopolitical actor that wants a place among future superpowers needs access to space and to its endless possibilities for development and growth.
Today, the European Space Agency is our gateway to space, and its mission is exactly this:
“to shape the development of Europe's space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world. ”
But what exactly is ESA, and why is it so relevant? In these times of uncertainty, why gamble on a Space programme?
ESA draws and carries out Europe’s space programme. Doing so, it promotes cooperation among member States and with foreign Space agencies in the field of scientific research. Even though ESA and the EU are separate organizations, they are connected by increasingly tight links, and they share the common goal of strengthening Europe and benefitting its citizens.
First of all, let’s look into some history and past achievements.
ESA’s voyage began in 1975, when two antecedent European agencies merged together. The two organizations, ELDO (European Launcher Development Organization) and ESRO (European Space Research Organisation), which were established in the 60’s, were unable to perform effectively due to the lack of funding and conflict of interests. In the same year of its foundation, ESA launched its first satellite, Cos-B, in 1975.
In the following years, many projects were carried out by the Agency, both alone and in joint ventures with others. In 1986, ESA’s first deep-space mission, “Giotto”, studied the famous Halley Comet, while the “Ulysses” (1990) and “SOHO” (1995) missions, both carried out in collaboration with NASA, studied the Sun. ESA also collaborated with NASA on many other milestone projects. In particular, ESA played a role in the realization of the famous Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, and in 1997 it launched jointly with NASA and with ASI (Italian Space Agency) the Cassini-Huygens mission. Another important project is the Ariane programme, which established Europe’s independent access to space, and consists of a family of rockets for transporting payloads into orbit. It began in the 70’s and it has since become one of the most successful commercial launch services, with the Ariane 4 making ESA the world leader in this sector between 1988 and 2003. Ariane 5, which has now been operational for a quarter of a century, is responsible, among other things, for carring into orbit the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s heir, in 2021.
ESA is also among the five space agencies which are a part of the International Space Station cooperation. Since 1998, the ISS has been the most important symbol of international cooperation in R&D, and Europe contributes to this unique project with two key elements, the Columbus multifunctional laboratory and the Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV).
What about ESA today?
Twenty-two States are currently part of the Agency, including some non-EU countries like the UK. Another eight countries cooperate with it. As of 2023, it has a budget of around 7 billion euros, and its funding comes from member States' contributions. Each member State has a seat in the Council, which is ESA’s main governing body, and every four years it elects a Director General. In 2021, when the current Director General Josef Aschbacher took office, ESA and its members presented the Agenda 2025, an ambitious plan that is aimed at making Europe competitive in the growing space market, which in 2040 will be worth one trillion dollars. Currently, the space sector provides 230,000 jobs in Europe, and the upstream revenues are worth 9 billion dollars, about 35% of the global market.
Agenda 2025 defines five priorities: further strengthening of ESA-EU relations, boosting green and digital commercialization in accordance with the European Green Deal and Digital Agenda, the development of technologies for the safety and security of Europeans, ensuring the success of its space projects and programmes, and finally completing the organization’s transformation to prepare for the challenges ahead.
Furthermore, in november 2022, during the ESA Council Meeting at Ministerial level, the government ministers of ESA Member States together with representatives of Associated and Cooperating States agreed to increase the budget by 17% (with respect to the last meeting), and the Ministers committed to strengthen Europe’s space ambitions together.
The European Space Agency is also engaged in a variety of projects that can help in providing solutions to different challenges that we face today. For this purpose, ESA has proposed three accelerators which are meant to be guidelines for its future steps and projects. The accelerators are “Rapid, Resilient crisis response”, “Space for a green future” and “Protection of space assets”. These guidelines are in line with ESA’s Agenda 2025, but also with recent trends set by the EU.
So let’s give a look at some projects that are particularly relevant in our current world.
In previous years we have seen how Europe can no longer rely on other players for the provision of strategic needs. This is why ESA’s Galileo programme is of growing importance. Galileo is Europe’s navigation system. Like the American GPS and the Russian GLONASS, Galileo is a global navigation satellite system (GNSS). It has been developed and employed during the last years in collaboration with the EU, and it offers a European alternative to foreign GNSS. This is a strategic technology, and being independent in this sector was an important step forward. Galileo consists of a constellation of 28 satellites (with 10 more to come), positioned in the Medium Earth Orbit, and has provided high-accuracy and real-time position tracking to four billion users worldwide since 2017. While conceived for providing autonomy, Galileo is interoperable with other GNSS systems, in order to pursue international collaboration. It offers different types of services: the Open Service - meant for any consumer and provided free of user charge, the Commercial Service - aimed at market applications that need higher performances, the Public Regulated Service - a system conceived for public authorities which grants higher security and can be operational even during crisis, and a Search and Rescue service - meant for humanitarian aid.
Galileo’s second generation of satellites is currently under development. They will be larger, carry more equipment and be more accurate and flexible.
Galileo launch on Soyuz, 21 Oct 2011, retrieved from:
As we have recently seen, Europe has begun facing the consequences of climate change, especially in the last few years. The extreme weather events were of unprecedented severity, causing an unacceptably high death toll and harsh economic losses. In this dire situation, monitoring weather conditions and patterns, and ensuring quick and effective disaster response are priorities for governments and for the EU. To this purpose, ESA contributes with the most ambitious Earth observation programme, Copernicus. Like Galileo, Copernicus is a project carried out together with the European Commission, and since the first satellite launched in 2014, it has provided a wide variety of data needed to support environmental policy-making, Civil Protection operations, and climate change monitoring. It consists in a constellation of around thirty satellites, the Sentinels, designed for different observations. Copernicus offers a variety of services, which are land, marine and atmospheric monitoring, in particular collecting data on soil conditions, vegetation, marine and air pollution, atmospheric composition and weather conditions, but it also provides rapid and precise mapping of areas affected by disasters.
One important characteristic of Copernicus is its openness: the data collected by the Sentinels is mostly available to every citizen, free of charge and easily accessible, making it the largest space data provider in the world.
As I said before, we have seen that we cannot rely on others for our strategic needs, and since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the importance of energetic sovereignty is clearer than ever. We have quickly moved away from Russia, but we have not become autonomous. Moreover, we also need to speed up the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, like solar power. But solar panels have the flaw of needing - quite obviously- the Sun, which is not always there to provide us with its energy. To tackle this problem, ESA is kick-starting a new initiative, SOLARIS. Its initial funding was approved during the Ministerial Council last year. The goal of this project is to set the grounds for a decision, that will be taken in 2025, on the technical viability of Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP). A detailed analysis of costs, benefits and risks will be carried out to allow ESA to make an informed decision about the future of this project.
Such a system could provide solar energy 24/7, regardless of atmospheric conditions, greatly increasing the efficiency of solar power plants, and it’s forecasted that it could provide competitive-priced green energy by 2040, thus contributing to the 2050 Net Zero Goal. The risks and challenges are many, of course. For example, ESA and its partners are assessing, among other things, the potential dangers for human life, flora and fauna, the possible impacts on weather and on aviation. Regardless of the current challenges, it’s important to know that this is not sci-fi, but something that ESA is already considering and partially funding.
These were but a few of the many projects that ESA had, has and will carry out.
However, I’d like to mention another important aspect of having a space programme, which to some may seem less in touch with the current challenges that Europe has to face, but to me is as important as more “practical” projects. I’m talking about having an ambitious, but concrete, plan for sending Europeans to the Moon and beyond. Why? For propaganda. I know that it may sound negative, but hear me out. By propaganda I don’t mean brainwashing people into an ideology, of course, but rather advertising Europe as something more than the Old Continent. We have an economic union, which until now has been able to face many challenges, but we are “only” this. If we want to build something more, a political union, possibly a Federation, we will need things to glue together half a billion people. We need something that makes us proud of calling ourself Europeans, something that we have achieved as Europeans, and not as simply Italians, Germans, French, Spaniards etc. working together. We need to create reasons to be proud of our common achievements, because basing our “national” identity only on millenia-old memories cannot be enough. This is why I think that having an ESA astronaut on the Moon, and later on Mars, can push European integration forward like nothing else can. And keep in mind that other international powers and private actors are trying to do so. India has recently sent a probe on our natural satellite, China has abandoned the ISS and is completing its own space station, and the US’s NASA is planning to send, for the first time in decades, Americans to the Moon. This could be the beginning of a new Space Race, which was one of the most important political and ideological battlegrounds of the Cold War. We cannot afford to miss it, because it would be a clear statement of technological inferiority and cultural decline. The point is not even winning - even though it wouldn’t hurt if the first flag on Mars was ours - but trying.
Lucky, ESA already has projects with these purposes. It is currently partnering with Russia’s space agency, ROSCOSMOS, and with NASA, on different programs. In particular, ESA is developing service modules for NASA’s Orion spacecrafts, which will take astronauts around the Moon with the Artemis II mission. The hope is to have European astronauts on the Moon's surface by the end of the decade, but it’s very likely that we will not be the first of this century.
In conclusion, space is, and increasingly will be, a central aspect of our society, a possible solution to many problems, and an ally when facing modern challenges. We must not waste this opportunity.
The countdown has already begun, but will Europe be ready to lift off?
Well, ESA is our booster, and its engines are on.
"Man on the moon, 20 July 1969" by Thomas Cizauskas, retrieved from: