Forty years later….

International Space Station
2 December 2009

By Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA and Maurici Lucena, Chairman of the ESA Council.

Original input for the article published in El Pais on 29 December 2009.

Forty years ago man first set foot on the Moon. Forty years later, those who were competing to reach the Moon are now cooperating on a daily basis on board the International Space Station together with a grown number of partners. Today a crew of six international astronauts lives and works permanently in space in a huge laboratory complex as large a football field, fruit of the international cooperation among the USA, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada orbiting at 250 km above our heads.

Today we can see the conquest of the Moon in a totally different light. Forty years later space has become a tool used to make the future of our planet possible. Europe which was not present in the space scene in 1969, did not only stand there looking on: we are now leading research in space for environment and climate change and we are very successful on the market of commercial launchers. In 40 years Europe has taken a real giant leap in space through the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Member States, including Spain which is among the six major space players in Europe and is home to ESAC, one the Establishment of ESA specializing in deep-space science, in Villafranca near Madrid.


The most important discovery of the Apollo programme is not the Moon but planet Earth, seen by 27 men as a small golf ball from the Moon. They made us understand that planet Earth belongs to space and not the other way around. And however there is no alternative than planet Earth for humankind: our future will depend on our ability to extend our knowledge and our actions beyond our Blue Planet. Our future is global, not an individual one, and therefore space activities are a global endeavor that, without excluding competition for what concerns commercial activities, stimulates cooperation.

Europe, starting later than the USA and the USSR which spent time and resources on competitive demonstrations, could focus it efforts from the outset on cooperation and planet Earth. To the point that, if today Europe can teach the world, it is on international cooperation and that the biggest space programme we are currently running is dedicated to Earth Sciences and relevant applications for environment and security. All European citizens are now dependant on space systems for their daily life: weather forecast, communications, television, global positioning, etc. Space is more and more contributing to global security on Earth, to the understanding of climate change, in the monitoring of natural disasters. Again, space has become a tool to make us live a better life. Europe can be proud of its achievements in space: science probes like Huygens landing on Titan and discovering a new world, or Mars Express finding water on Mars; Envisat or GOCE monitoring our fragile environment for a better understanding of our living planet; Galileo to navigate with utmost precision around the world…are only a few examples of the dozens of outstanding missions ESA has successfully accomplished in 40 years of existence.

Spain, which started even later in space activities, has become a major player in ESA thanks to a continuous and growing support by the Government, competitive industrial capabilities, world class scientists and the presence of ESAC.

the Small GEO system, a small geostationary telecommunications satellite developed in partnership with Hispasat that will incorporate advanced technology and processors as well as active antennas. Small GEO is expected to be launched in 2011-2102.

And speaking of “sustainable development” we should not forget another peculiar example that sees Spain’s CDTI as a major partner and the involvement of the University of Barcelona: the MELISSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) project. MELISSA is a highly regenerative Life Support System based on microorganism and higher plants, to be used on missions beyond low Earth orbit to sustain future manned mission. It is clear that any progress made to recycle resources in space will have a direct impact on energy management, water management, etc. on planet Earth.

Ariane 5
Ariane 5

All this spacecraft is tagged “Made in Europe” by extremely skilled men and women working in highly specialized industries around the continent, and embarks hundreds of experiment prepared by scientist in various disciplines who can then reap the benefits of our Governments’ investments in space, along with million of citizens who can profit from better services day after day.

All these satellites need to be brought into space by a very special mean of transportation: the Ariane 5 launcher, another good example of what Europe can be proud of. Ariane 5, lifting-off in average every eight weeks, will soon be flanked by a smaller launcher, Vega, and also Russian Soyuz launchers will take advantage of launching from the Guiana Space Centre, the European spaceport in French Guiana, in South America.

Our contribution to the International Space Station materializes in terms of hardware and astronauts. The Columbus laboratory, attached to the international space station since early 2008, is Europe’s “real estate” in space. There, Earth-based researchers, together with the ISS crew, are able to conduct hundreds of experiments in life sciences, materials science, fluid physics and a whole host of other disciplines.

ATV Jules Verne

Another major European contribution to the ISS endeavor has been the Automated Transfer Vehicle Jules Verne. Successfully launched on an Ariane 5 in March 2008, the ATV docked to the International space station in a fully automated way, carrying food, supplies, material and experiments to the ISS. Six months later it returned to Earth full of waist, burning up in a controlled manner in the higher layers of the atmosphere. Further developments consider a cargo re-entry capsule, able to bring back cargo and valuable experiments, and then the possible future development of a European crew transportation system.

ESA astronaut Frank de Winne, from Belgium, is currently at the ISS and will soon become the first European commander of the space outpost, till the end of his six month mission in late November. Christer Fuglesang, from Sweden, has recently visited the ISS on a short duration flight. In the coming years ESA will be able to fly in average a European astronaut each year, while six newly recruited candidate astronauts have a just started training for future missions…. in the footsteps of Pedro Duque who flew to the ISS in October 2003 on his second space assignment.

Europe has built up all capacities and has demonstrated the necessary reliability towards its international partners for playing an even stronger role on the international scene. The political vision of space at European level has made some progress in the framework of a growing cooperation between ESA and the European Union, but further steps must be taken in order to put space as a model of cooperation on Earth, as a tool to distribute information, as an attraction for young generations towards science and technology, in one word to make our future possible.

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