European Web Sites to Watch: The European Space Agency


W hat is it?

The European Space Agency (ESA) co-ordinates the efforts of 15 European countries to develop a Europe-wide space programme. The idea is that by pooling resources Europe?s space scientists should at least be able to play in the same league as NASA?s. (NASA?s total budget is still almost six times that of ESA?s, though ...)

What kind of researchers do they employ?

Mostly engineers, IT types, and physicists.

Actually the majority of the research and development paid for out of ESA?s ?2800-million-plus budget is carried out under contract by Europe?s space industry, which employs 40,000 people directly, and an estimated 250,000 indirectly. The agency?s policy is to award contracts in proportion to the relative amounts put in by member states. The idea is that each country should pretty much get back what it puts into the budget. So companies in the big spending countries--France, Germany, and Italy--do best out of ESA contracts.

Where is it?

ESA is headquartered in Paris. You?ll find most of the rest of its nearly 1800 staff at:

  • The European Space Research and Technology Centre ( ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands

  • The European Space Operations Centre ( ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany

  • The European Astronauts Centre ( EAC) in Cologne, Germany

  • The European Space Research Institute ( ESRIN) in Frascati, Italy

What can I find on their site?

Very much aimed at a public audience, a lot of the information is delivered in the form of short ?news? articles, making it easy to read.

The space science programme only gets about a tenth of ESA?s total budget, and following a tightening of purse strings, ESA?s director of science recently announced a reshuffling of priorities. The space science section--one of the few parts of the site that hasn?t undergone a redesign to make it match with the rest--provides information about all the missions that ESA has on its schedule, as well as the work of the Research and Scientific Support Department.

However, research and development at ESA means more than just space science. ESA also has programmes for Earth Observation (where you can find out more about Envisat, Europe?s most expensive satellite); Human Spaceflight; the development of rockets to launch satellites; and Navigation and Telecommunications. It also has a technology transfer programme to ensure all that research gets put to good use on Earth as well as in space.

What opportunities can I find here?

If you want to be an astronaut, not many! The European Astronaut Corp currently comprises just 16 people, and the last time the job was advertised there were 22,000 applicants! Hmmm. About half the current corp are former military test pilots, but the others are scientists, mostly physicists. Claudie Haigneré, the only woman, has a background in space medicine.

Undergraduates who want to experience zero gravity, at least for 20 seconds, could enter ESA?s annual Student Parabolic Flight Campaign competition. The 30 winning teams, and their experiments, are hurtled into the air at 45 degrees, before the A300 plane powers down to send it into the parabolic trajectory followed by a thrown ball.

If the very thought of an A300 in parabolic free-fall makes you feel ill and you want to keep your feet firmly on the ground, ESA offers two other types of training opportunities. Young Graduate Trainees are employed for a year at one of ESA?s establishments to get a feel for the world of work in an international environment. Don?t expect all these jobs to be research based, though. When I looked, the Education Office was advertising for a science or engineering graduate to work on their outreach programmes aimed at 6- to 28-year-olds!

Star Ratings


(With all these great space pictures they have a head start!)

Ease of Navigation

(This is a big site, but everything is remarkably easy to find.)

Quality of Information

(It?s written for the public, so don?t expect lots of heavy scientific detail.)

ESA?s Postdoctoral Research Fellowships come in two varieties--internal, where the fellow works in one of ESA?s establishments, and external, where the fellow proposes a research project relevant to ESA?s activities at the host institute of their choice. External fellows must work in a country other than their own. Fellowships are for 1 year initially, renewable for a second.

Training and job opportunities at ESA are only open to nationals of its 15 Member States: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, plus Canada as a co-operating state.

Any other interesting stuff?

I think one of the funkiest aspects of this site is its country-specific information. From the home page you can access the latest news relevant to each of ESA?s 15 member states, in the right language of course. You?ll find links to key national space-related organisations, and to a calendar of space events in that country.

If you?re interested in a job in industry check out the European Space Industry Directory, accessed from the ESA Industry Portal. It allows you to search for companies by location and product or service category.

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