Europe's involvement in human spaceflight began in 1969. After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon, NASA began to think about building a reusable Shuttle.
European countries decided to develop a science laboratory, known as Spacelab, that would fit inside the Shuttle's cargo bay. In return for this, they were allowed to fly astronauts on Shuttle missions.
Since Ulf Merbold's flight with Spacelab-1 in 1983, European astronauts have flown 30 times on the U.S. Shuttle. Many of their early flights used ESA’s Spacelab for microgravity experiments. Others took part in missions to service the NASA-ESA Hubble Space Telescope or carry out unique science activities.
21 flights have involved European astronauts flying on Soviet or Russian spacecraft. Visits to the Salyut and Mir space stations (1978-1999) provided valuable experience in learning how to live in space for long periods. Thomas Reiter spent almost six months on Mir, becoming the first ESA astronaut to take part in a spacewalk.
In recent years, ESA astronauts have paid regular visits to the International Space Station (ISS). There have been two long-duration missions by European astronauts on the Station. In 2008, Léopold Eyharts of France spent nearly 49 days in space on a mission to dock and commission ESA’s Columbus laboratory. In 2009, Belgian Frank De Winne spent 6 months on the Station and became the first ESA astronaut to command the ISS.