Thousands meet astronauts and space experts at ESA’s technical heart
The entrance line snaked back down the road long before the official start of the Open Day at ESA’s technical centre on Sunday, marked with an all-star astronaut introduction and big-screen Ariane 5 rocket launch.
More than 8500 visitors took the opportunity to tour ESA’s largest establishment, nestled beside the North Sea town of Noordwijk in the Netherlands. Attendees were free to explore across the sprawling site.
The walkway through ESTEC’s main building was lined with displays on ESA space missions, manned by the experts overseeing them, as well as ESA’s specialised laboratories.
ESA’s Rosetta team – the spacecraft set to land on a comet in 2014 – demonstrated how to cook a comet, combining mud, dry ice and chocolate sauce to produce a simple model of a comet that, just like the real thing, started smoking as it warmed up.
And visitors could enjoy a simulated 3D tour of the International Space Station. ESTEC’s Erasmus centre was the place to go for information on people and robot explorers in space, with attendees finding replicas of Space Station hardware, and the ‘Mars Yard’ where planetary rovers are put to the test.
Visitors to the Test Centre took a look at the BepiColombo spacecraft, ESA’s 2015 mission to Mercury. This engineering version was built to carry out all the environmental testing ensuring the mission can survive the 450ºC temperatures around Mercury.
Kids had their own corner near the site entrance, where they could be transformed into aliens by face-painters, jump around inside bouncy castles and try out astronomical telescopes and the pressure hoses of ESTEC’s very own fire engine.
ESA’s Dutch partners – space companies and research centres, including firms supported by ESA’s nearby Business Incubation Centre – explained to visitors how space technology is being turned into business opportunities.
The Open Day was attended by a trio of ESA astronauts spanning the generations: Dutch André Kuipers, who returned from the Station last year, Reinhold Ewald who flew to Mir in 1997 and Ulf Merbold, the very first ESA astronaut.
All three joined Director Franco Ongaro at the opening ceremony, with another currently flying ESA astronaut, Luca Parmitano, relaying his own greeting from orbit.
André Kuipers welcomed the day’s visitors to his former workplace: “There’s a lot to see here, as I’m sure you’ll enjoy finding out: ESTEC really is the technical heart of ESA.”
Reinhold Ewald recalled being aboard Russia’s Mir space station during the infamous fire incident, but he joked, “That it wasn’t my fault, and I’m still here.”
Reinhold also talked about today’s Space Station missions, having run the operations team overseeing delivery of the Columbus laboratory module in 2008, emphasising the importance of inspiring new generations of engineers and scientists.
He pointed to some young girls in the audience, saying “Sure you can be astronauts, you’re smart enough, go beat the boys!”
Ulf Merbold talked about how he was selected as one of ESA’s first payload specialists for the Space Shuttle missions flying with Europe’s Spacelab module. This November marks the 30th anniversary of Ulf’s Spacelab-1 mission.
Recounting his pioneering adventure, Ulf concluded by describing how his orbital view of Earth made him realise our planet’s fragility and how he believes that we have not inherited this Earth from our ancestors, but are borrowing it from future generations.