History: ESA's first astronauts, 1978
ESA's first astronauts, 1978: Claude Nicollier from Switzerland, Wubbo Ockels from the Netherlands and Ulf Merbold from Germany.
ESA started its first astronaut selection in 1977-1978. This came from the 1973 agreement that ESA had with NASA to supply the first Spacelab reusable science laboratory, which was carried in the Shuttle’s cargo bay, in exchange for flight opportunities for European astronauts.
From this selection campaign, ESA chose its first astronauts: Nicollier, Ockels and Merbold. Italian physicist Franco Malerba was also chosen in this selection, but later resigned for medical reasons. He eventually became the first Italian in space when he flew on the Space Shuttle in 1992.
But it was Merbold who had the honour of being the first ESA and European to undertake a mission on the Space Shuttle (STS-9) on the 10-day Spacelab-1 mission between 28 November 1983 and 8 December 1983. Not only was this the first spaceflight of an ESA astronaut, it was the first flight of the European-built Spacelab and the first flight of a non-American on the Shuttle.