The European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) was a international organisation founded by 10 European nations with the intention of studying space. It was founded in 1964 and was merged with ELDO in 1975 to form the European Space Agency.

The founding of ESRO


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 and the Frenchman Pierre Victor Auger. Neither Amaldi nor Auger was 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 Organisation for Nuclear Research. Now, as the decade drew to a close, they turned their attention to space. Success was rapid. Within a year of the first formal discussions being held amongst scientists, European governments had set up a European Preparatory Commission for Space Research (COPERS) to explore the possibilities for a joint space research effort.

The role of COPERS

The COPERS held its first session in Paris on 13 and 14 March 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 for signature by those member state governments who wished to join it. To this end the meeting first elected its "bureau": chairman Harrie Massey, vice-chairmen, Luigi Broglio and Hendrik van de Hulst, and executive secretary Pierre Auger, all men who had played an important role in the debates in 1960 and, Auger apart, still active and eminent European space scientists. It then established two working groups. The first was the Interim Scientific and Technical Working Group (STWG). Its task was to prepare the scientific programme for the future space organisation, paying particular attention to the technical and financial implications of its proposals. Lamek Hulthén, from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, was nominated chairman of this group; Reimar Lüst from the Max-Planck-Institut für Physik und Astrophysik in Garching, near Munich was appointed its coordinating secretary. The second was the Legal, Administrative and Financial Working Group (LAFWG). Its chairman was initially left open, though it was recommended that he be someone from the German Federal Republic. In the event, Alexander Hocker, a senior bureaucrat from Bad-Godesberg who was also the chairman of the CERN Finance Committee at the time, took on this task. All Member States were to be represented on both working groups, which were empowered to set up subgroups to facilitate their work.

The Blue Book

By the third meeting of COPERS on 24 and 25 October 1961 in Munich, the STWG had prepared a 77 page document outlining the future European Space Research Organisation. The so called Blue Book was divided into 5 parts, each devoted to one of the following subjects:

  • a general outline of ESRO
  • ESRO's scientific programme
  • its technology centre
  • data handling
  • ranges and vehicles

The Blue Book foresaw the firing of some 435 sounding rockets and the successful development and launching of 17 satellites in the 8 years covered by the ESRO Convention, namely 11 small satellites, 4 space probes, and 2 large satellites. It must be noted, however, that it was assumed that 2 launchings would be required to orbit one successful spacecraft, so that the number of satellite and space probes launchings budgeted for was doubled. The total cost of the satellite programme was estimated at 733.5 MFF, of which 450 MFF was for launchers and launch operations and 283.5 MFF for spacecraft development.

It should be noted that the Blue Book was more a manifesto of interests and expectations than a concrete working hypothesis. It only reflected the intentions and hopes of important sectors of the European scientific community while ignoring their lack of capacity to fulfill these intentions. The fact that transforming the manifesto into a true operational programme would be a long and laborious process and the results sometimes disappointing.

The organisation and functioning of ESRO

The Auger years (1964-67)

The ESRO Convention entered into force on 20 March 1964. The ten founding states were Belgium, Denmark, France, (Federal Republic of) Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United Kingdom. Two other countries which had participated in the early COPERS activities, Austria and Norway, decided not to join the new Organisation and retained an observer status. 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.

The Legislative arm

At the decision making level (the "Legislative" in the ESRO jargon), the supreme governing body was the Council, made of delegations from its Member States. Each member state had one vote in the Council, where it could be represented by not more than two delegates, one of whom was generally a scientist, the other an important national science administrator. One or more advisers were usually included national delegations. The main tasks of the Council were to determine the Organisation's scientific, technical and administrative policy; to approve its programme and annual work plans; and to determine its level of resources both annually, and every third year for the subsequent three-year period. The Council was advised by two subordinate bodies, the Administrative and Finance Committee (AFC) and the Scientific and Technical Committee (STC).

The Executive arm

At the executive level, ESRO was managed by a Directorate based in Paris, including the Director General assisted by a Scientific Director, a Technical Director and a Head of Administration . The directors of ESRIN, ESDAC and ESLAB reported to the Scientific Director; the director of ESTEC, who had also responsibility for ESRANGE and ESTRACK, reported to the Technical Director. The "Executive", as it was eventually called, was responsible for the implementation of approved programmes within the established financial envelope and under general control from the Scientific and Technical Committee. It was also called to perform feasibility studies of space missions proposals coming from the scientific community and recommended by the STC, in view of their eventual adoption in the programme.

The Bannier report and its consequences

Only two years after the formation of ESRO, problems with its structure became painfully obvious. By mid-1966 it had climbed to 50 %, placing enormous pressure on the operational programme. For this reason the Council set up a group of experts led by J.H. Bannier to investigate and solve the problem. Bannier quickly relived the pressure on the AFC by raising the limit below which the Executive could award contracts without having to seek committee approval. He further increased the role of the Executive by transferring certain competencies from the Legislative to the Directorate. But this was only a stop-gap measure.

Bannier realised that the entire structure of ESOC had to be changed. Firstly, they were emphatic that the executive function of the organisation should be clearly separated from the policy and the planning function. Secondly, as far as the scientific programme was concerned, they recommended that there be a clear institutional distinction drawn between spacecraft development and spacecraft operation after launch. To achieve these objectives, the Bannier group suggested that ESRO's top management structure be completely changed. The dichotomy between scientific and technical directorates was, in Bannier's view, wrong in principle for an organisation like ESRO. To overcome it, he suggested that the two posts be abolished. In its stead a new structure was proposed. It comprised the Director General (DG) plus four directors, two of whom were essentially responsible for policy-making and two for policy execution. A new post was to be created in the first category, a so-called Director of Programmes and Planning (DPP), whose task it would be to prepare draft programmes of the Organisation, based on the scientific, technical, financialand time implications of the different proposals. The second member of the directorate concerned with forward planning would be the Director of Administration (DA) whose task it would be to prepare policy on the future needs of personnel, finance and contracts, and to organise and implement the necessary procedures to maintain an a posteriori control over the Organisation's functioning. The two posts in the Directorate having executive authority would be filled by the director of ESTEC and of ESDAC, which was to be renamed ESOC, the European Space Operations Centre. As for ESRIN, the Bannier group judged its research to be marginal to the major activities of the Organisation. Its director, they felt, should not be a member of the directorate but should rather report directly to the DG.

Facilities and establishments


The European Space Research and Technology Centre was to be a facility at the very core of 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 the launch there of. 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 practise, national organisations simply used ESTEC as a service organisation and left it to pay for their efforts from the ESRO budget. After the Bannier Report the facility gained overall executive authority for spacecraft development and was merged with ESLAB. The satellite control centre was also moved to ESOC. ESTEC was originally to be located in Delft (Holand) but because of unforeseen difficulties, Noordwijk was chosen instead.


The situation with ESRO's laboratory, ESLAB was similar. It lacked the staff to function as an independent organisation. But this wasn't surprising since the ESRO Convention describes ESLAB's role in the following manner:

This meant that ESLAB was little more than a venue for visiting scientists. ESLAB's role was later expanded. It acted as the interface between national scientific groups and ESTEC engineering groups as well as conducted its own research within the scope of the large astronomical satellite project. After the Bannier Report ESLAB was merged with ESTEC.


ESRANGE was a 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, and for this reason it was essential that ESRO equip itself with a suitable range in the northern latitudes. Access to Kiruna was good by air, road and rail, and the launching range was close to a fairly large town of the same name. Finally and perhaps decisively, ESRANGE could be located near Hultqvist's Geophysical Observatory.


Data handling had two aspects. Firstly, it required the setting up of a network of tracking and telemetry stations which could receive signals from spacecraft (ESTRACK). This network was comprised of four stations situated in the following locations:

  • Redu (Belgiam)
  • Fairbanks (Alaska)
  • Spitsbergen (Norway)
  • Falkland Islands

Secondly, it required a central laboratory which would edit and process the information from the tracking network. The facilities at the centre, initially labelled ESDAC (European Space Data Acquisition Centre), were essentially to be a large mainframe computer or computers, which would be made available both to its in-house staff and to visiting scientists and fellows who wished to use them to analyse and study the recovered data. ESDAC was later renamed ESOC, the European Space Operations Centre. ESOC is located in Darmstadt (Germany). After the Bannier Report it gained overall executive authority for spacecraft operation. ESOC's director also became responsible for ESRANGE and for ESTRACK.


ESLAR, a laboratory for advanced research was created mainly to break the political deadlock over the location of ESLAB. Later renamed ESRIN, and acronym for European Space Research Institute, ESLAR was based in Frascati (Italy). the ESRO Convention describes ESRINs' role in the following manner:


ESRO headquarters was home to the Executive arm of ESRO. After the Bannier Report it became responsible for policy, planning and a posteriori control.

Scientific programms

Sounding rockets

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 launches from the Salto di Quirra range in Sardinia on 6 and 8 July 1964. They released a payload of barium and ammonia into the ionosphere. The first launch from ESRANGE was made in November 1966. From this point onward the frequency of sounding rocket launches increased dramatically. The Norwegian base in Andøya was also used as a launch site.

The French Centaure (83) and British Skylark (64) were the main rockets utilised for the programme. The American Arcas (14), French Bélier (4) and Dragon (2), British Petrel (1) and German/Swiss Zenit (1) were also used. In total, the program oversaw the launch of 168 sounding rockets with an average success rate of 75%. During the course of the programme, the size and payload of the sounding rockets used by ESRO increased from 2,7 to 5,55 m (in length) and from 140 to 310 kg respectively.

About half of the 168 sounding rockets were dedicated to ionospheric and auroral studies, about a quarter to atmospheric physics and the rest to solar, stellar and gamma-ray studies. While the number of launched rockets was lower than foreseen, the project acceded expectations due to higher than anticipated payload capacity and longer range of the rockets.

Original satellite programme

The Blue Book foresaw the launching of 11 small satellites, 4 space probes, and 2 large satellites. These ambitions were never realised mainly due to financial troubles. The programme went through many revisions and in the end only a handful of projects produced concrete results. These were the two small, non-stabilised satellites ESRO I and ESRO II, launched in 1968 and renamed after launch Aurorae and Iris respectively; the two small highly eccentric orbit satellites HEOS-A and HEOS-A2, launched in 1968 and 1972 and then renamed HEOS-1 and HEOS-2; the medium size, stabilised satellite TD-1, launched in 1972; and the small satellite ESRO IV, also launched in 1972, which replaced the second satellite of the TD series (TD-2). All these were multi-experiment satellites, i.e. the spacecraft carried a payload comprising several instruments provided by different research groups.


These were small, non-stabilised spacecraft, carrying very simple experiments designed to measure the radiation environment around the spacecraft. They represented the direct satellite descendants of the experience gained with the sounding rocket experiments. ESRO I's origin in the sounding rocket programme was particularly obvious. It studied auroral phenomena and the polar ionosphere. ESRO II was dedicated to study in the fields of solar astronomy and cosmic rays. Sometimes the two satellites are also referred to as ESRO-1A or Aurora and ESRO-2B Iris respectively.


Later renamed as HEOS-A, the first highly eccentric orbit satellite was designed to make measurements of plasma, magnetic field and cosmic ray particles. There were disagreements over the cost of this project. Since the existing ESTRACK grid had been designed with low orbit satellites in mind it would be insufficient for tracking and receiving data form a satellite in a highly eccentric (escape) orbit. A solution was found in the form of upgrading an ELDO facility in Australia and integrating it at a relatively low cost.

The TD programme

Named after the workhorse medium launch system used by ESRO at the time, the Thor Delta, the TD programme initially foresaw the launch of 3 satellites: TD-1, TD-2 and TD-3. TD-1 was devoted to stellar astronomy, TD-2 was to be devoted to solar astronomy while TD-3 was to study the ionosphere. Later TD-2 and 3 were merged to save funds. But subsequent financial difficulties and political disagreements led to the abandonment of the TD-2/TD-3 spacecraft. Later some of the experiments destined for launch aboard the TD-2/TD-3 ware flown on the ESRO IV satellite.


The Large Astronomical Satellite was to be an orbiting observatory with the mission of providing basic knowledge about celestial objects through the use of a high-resolution ultraviolet spectrometer. The project started in the late 1950s and was cancelled in 1968 because of the lack of financial support and political squabbles.



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