The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an inter-governmental organisation dedicated to the exploration of space. It has 17 member states at the moment. ESA has its headquarters in Paris. ESA has a staff of about 1,900 with an annual budget of about 3 billion euros in 2006.
ESA’s spaceport is the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, a site chosen because it is close to the equator from which commercially important orbits are easier to access. During the 1990s ESA gained the position of market leader in commercial space launches and in recent years ESA has established itself as a major player in space exploration.
Goals and aims
ESA has ambitious space plans that may be divided into three large categories: a) maintain its scientific and research projects (e.g. tests and developments of new propulsion systems) b) find ways to reduce costs for their rocket fleet while enhancing their capacities, c) honour its commitments regarding the ISS and engage in further space exploration like the Venus Express mission that was launched in late 2005.
Some projects of ESA are more or less similar in their structure and aim as NASA’s and other space agencies’ plans. However, in contrast to NASA’s plans ESA has put no emphasis on manned or unmanned lunar missions. ESA rather focuses on its flagship missions designed to develop and test technology needed for a manned European Mars mission currently planned for 2030. Among these flagship missions is ExoMars, a mission involving a Mars rover. The mission is currently planned to launch in 2013. An even more ambitious Mars project is the Mars Sample Return Mission, that is planned as a follow-up mission to ExoMars.
Relationship with the European Union
The ESA is not within the structures of the European Union (EU), and has non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway, two EFTA countries as member. There are however ties between these organisations, with various agreements in place and being worked on.