The European Space Research Organisation

The European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) was an international organisation founded by European States with the intention of jointly pursuing scientific research in outer space. It was founded in 1964. Between 1964 and 1975, ESRO developed eight small scientific satellites launched by NASA and started the realisation of seven others. Towards the end of its existence, the European Space Research Organisation had expanded its field of intervention to include space applications in the field of telecommunications and meteorology. ESRO has also carried out space-related studies by launching sounding rockets. Following a general overhaul of the European Space Program decided in 1973, the European Space Research Organisation was merged with ELDO to form the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1975.

The European Launcher Development Organisation

The European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the exploration of outer space. It was established in 1975 and headquartered in Paris. One of its two ancestors is the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). The European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) is a former European space research organization. It was first developed in order to establish a satellite launch vehicle for Europe. The three-stage rocket developed was named Europa, after the mythical Greek god. Overall, there were ten launches that occurred under ELDO’s funding. Initially, the launch site was in Woomera, Australia, but was later moved to the French site Kourou, in French Guiana. The program was created to replace the Blue Streak Missile Program after its cancellation in 1960. In 1974, after an unsuccessful satellite launch, the program was merged with the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) to form the European Space Agency (ESA).

After World War II, many European scientists left Western Europe in order to work with the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Although the 1950s boom made it possible for Western European countries to invest in research and specifically in space-related activities, Western European scientists realised solely national projects would not be able to compete with the two main superpowers. In 1958, only months after the Sputnik shock, Italian Edoardo Amaldi (September 5, 1908 – December 5, 1989) and French Pierre Victor Auger, two prominent members of the Western European scientific community, met to discuss the foundation of a common Western European space agency. They recommended that European governments set up a “purely scientific” joint organisation for space research, taking CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, derived from the name Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) as a model.

Scientists from European countries, the “Groupe d’etudes européen pour la Collaboration dans le domaine des recherches spatiales” (GEERS), with Harrie Massey (May 16, 1908 – November 27, 1983), an Australian mathematical physicist who worked primarily in the fields of atomic and atmospheric physics, as President, and Pierre Auger as Secretary, set up a commission in December 1960 in Meyrin, Switzerland, at which government representatives would decide on possibilities of European cooperation in outer space. European States decided in 1962 to have two different agencies, one to develop a launch system, the European Launch Development Organisation (ELDO) and the other, the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), to develop spacecraft.

The European Space Research Organisation Convention

The origins of a joint European space effort are generally traced back to a number of initiatives taken in 1959 and 1960 by a small group of scientists and science administrators, catalysed by two friends, physicists and scientific statesmen, the Italian Edoardo Amaldi (September 5, 1908 – December 5, 1989) and the Frenchman Pierre Victor Auger (May 14, 1899 – December 25, 1993). Neither Amaldi nor Auger was a stranger to the cause of scientific collaboration on a European scale. Indeed, it was they who, in the early 1950s, were key actors in the process which led to the setting up of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Within a year of the first formal discussions being held amongst scientists, by the end of the 1950s, European governments had set up a preparatory commission in order to explore the possibilities for a joint space research effort. The European Preparatory Commission for Space Research or Commission Préparatoire Européenne de Recherche Spatiale (COPERS) held its first session in Paris in 1961. Its first task was to create the organs needed to define the scientific programme and the necessary infrastructure of the envisaged organisation, to draw up its budget, and to prepare a Convention.

Created on June 14, 1962 and set up in 1964 with the aim of producing scientific satellites, ESRO was much more successful than the other European space organisation created at the same time to develop a European launcher, ELDO. At the instigation of its first general director, the French physicist Pierre Victor Auger, ESRO established a strong central administration and its own technical centres, which would later constitute the foundations of the European Space Agency (ESA). The CONVENTION FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A EUROPEAN SPACE RESEARCH ORGANIZATION dates back to June 14, 1962. Article I on the Organisation states that “A European Space Research Organisation is hereby established”. It also states that “The Headquarters of the Organisation shall be at Paris”. Article II on the Purpose affirms that “The purpose of the Organisation shall be to provide for, and to promote, collaboration among European States in space research and technology, exclusively for peaceful purposes”.

Article V on the Programme and Activities enounces that “In order to fulfil its purpose the Organisation shall carry out a programme of scientific research and related technological activities. It may in particular: (a) design and construct sounding rocket payloads, satellites and space probes, carrying instruments provided by Member States or by the Organisation itself; (b) procure launching vehicles and arrange for their launching; (c) provide means for the reception, collection, reduction and analysis of data; (d) support research and development as required for its programme; (e) promote and provide for contacts between scientists and engineers, their interchange and advanced training; (f) disseminate information among Member States; (g) co-operate with research institutions in the Member States and assist in the co-ordination of their efforts; (h) make contractual arrangements for the use of launching ranges for rockets and satellites and other facilities available in Member or other States”.

Article VIII on Special Projects declares that “If, outside the agreed programme but within the scope of the Organisation, one or more Member States engage in a project in connection with which the Council decides, by a two-thirds majority of all Member States, to make available the assistance of the Organisation or the use of its facilities, the resulting cost to the Organisation shall be refunded to the Organisation by the State or States concerned”.

Article IX on Organs states that “The Organisation shall consist of a Council and a Director-General assisted by a staff” and Article X on The Council specifies that “The Council shall be composed of representatives of the Member States. Each Member State may be represented by not more than two delegates, who may be accompanied by advisers. The Council shall meet at least twice a year. The meetings shall be held at the seat of the Organisation’s Headquarters, unless otherwise decided by the Council. The Council shall elect a chairman and two vice-chairmen, who shall hold office for one year and may be re-elected on not more than two consecutive occasions. The Council shall, subject to the provisions of this Convention and among other dispositions, determine the Organisation’s policy in scientific, technical and administrative matters”.

The ESRO Convention entered into force on March 20, 1964. The ten founding states were Belgium, Denmark, France, (the Federal Republic of) Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The first meeting of the Council opened in Paris three days later with Harrie Massey in the Chair. Pierre Auger was appointed ESRO’s first Director General. Thus it was up to one of its main founding father, to lead the European Space Research Organisation during the critical first three years of existence. The ESRO convention outlined the Organisation as an entity exclusively devoted to scientific pursuits. This was the case for most of its lifetime but in the final years, before the formation of ESA, the European Space Agency, ESRO began a programme in the field of telecommunications.

The European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC)

The European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), located in Noordwijk (the Netherlands), was founded in 1968. The centre was to be the core of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO). Its responsibilities included the engineering and testing of satellites and their payloads, the integration of scientific instruments in these payloads, and making arrangements for their launch. In some cases member States were to produce the scientific instruments for ESRO or produce them as part of their own national effort and compensate ESTEC for its service. In practice, national organisations simply used ESTEC as a service organisation and left it to pay for their efforts from the ESRO budget.


Esrange Space Center (short form Esrange) is a rocket range and research centre located about forty kilometres east of the town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. It is a base for scientific research with high-altitude balloons, investigation of the aurora borealis, sounding rocket launches, and satellite tracking, among other things. Located two hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and surrounded by a vast wilderness, its geographic location is ideal for many of these purposes. Esrange was built in 1964 by ESRO, the European Space Research Organisation, which later became the European Space Agency by merging with ELDO, the European Launcher Development Organisation. The first rocket launch from Esrange occurred on November 19, 1966. In 1972, ownership was transferred to the newly started Swedish Space Corporation.

In the 1960s, Esrange was established as an ESRO sounding rocket launching range located in Kiruna (Sweden). This location was chosen because it was generally agreed that it was important to carry out a sounding rocket programme in the auroral zone, where most auroras occur, and for this reason it was essential that ESRO equipped itself with a suitable range in the northern latitudes. Access to Kiruna was good by air, road and rail, and the launching range was relatively close to the town of Kiruna. Finally and perhaps decisively, Esrange could be located near Kiruna Geophysical Observatory (subsequently renamed to Swedish Institute of Space Physics). There had been Swedish rocket activities previously, between 1961 and 1964, however, the rocket activity in Sweden did not gain thrust until after ESRO established Esrange in 1964. During ESRO’s period, more than one hundred and fifty rockets were launched. They supported many branches of European research, but the emphasis was on atmospheric and ionospheric research.

The scientific activities

The ESRO convention outlined the organisation as one which would be solely devoted to outer space science. As a consequence, scientific work was the main area of ESRO’s early operations. As the organisation and its capabilities matured, it shifted from a strictly scientific programme to one where applicational activities played a more dominant role. The fact that sounding rockets are relatively inexpensive, have a short lead time, provide a test bed for more ambitious project, and have a low risk of failure, made them an ideal first project for the newly formed European Space Research Organisation. The first two ESRO sounding rockets were launched in 1964 from Salto di Quirra, a restricted weapons testing range and rocket launching site near Perdasdefogu (Sardinia, Italy), the largest military range in Italy. The first launch from Esrange was made in November 1966. From this point onward, the frequency of sounding rocket launches increased dramatically. The British Skylark and French Centaure were the main rockets utilised for the programme.

The first satellites of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) concentrated on solar and cosmic radiation and its interaction with Earth. ESRO-2 looked at solar X-rays, cosmic radiation and Earth’s radiation belts, while ESRO-1A simultaneously examined how the auroral zones responded to geomagnetic and solar activity. Direct measurements were made as these high-energy charged particles plunged from the outer magnetosphere into the atmosphere. ESRO-1B was launched into a lower, circular orbit – meaning that re-entry was inevitable after a few weeks – to provide complementary measurements. ESRO-1A was launched on October 3, 1968 and re-entered on June 26, 1970; ESRO-1B was launched on October 1, 1969 and re-entered on November 23, 1969.