ESA is an organisation continuously planning the impossible. Future missions and applications are first outlined when they are still well beyond the current edge of the technology envelope. But these grand plans are then methodically brought into the realm of the possible, thanks to a steady stream of targeted innovation.
Here we talk to individuals who are pivotal in making such inventiveness happen, letting them explain what they do in their own words.
ESA channels around 8% of its budget into direct technology research and development, an activity mandated in the Agency’s founding Convention. ESA’s Directorate of Technical and Quality Management runs a suite of technology programmes covering various technical maturity levels and domains.
The Directorate’s goal is to ensure enabling technologies become available at the point when upcoming ESA and European missions need them – one definition of innovation being ‘the right technology at the right time’.
In the end it all comes down to the human element. Technology, as a working definition, is the practical application of knowledge so that something new can be done. To put it another way, technology is the single attribute that defines us, Homo sapiens, as a species: our ability to make and use new tools.
Most of the human body is unremarkable when compared to other animals: it is the tool-making ability of our brains and hands that took us from African savannah to the Sea of Tranquillity on the Moon. Behind ESA’s often remarkable technological achievements, human curiosity and foresight remain the driving forces.