Today marks 43 years since the European Space Agency (ESA) was established. Happy birthday ESA!
On the subject of birthdays, one of my earliest projects in around four years of working within space culminated in the 2014 ESA Ministerial Meeting in Luxembourg. These meetings bring politicians together from all ESA member states to decide on which projects to support and to set the direction of the Agency. This happened to be taking place a day after a milestone birthday of my own, and I had spent the run up to it working on the UK based business case for the programmes we were planning to subscribe to. This meeting also came shortly after the Philae lander reached Comet 67P as part of the ESA Rosetta mission, which meant there was extra public and media scrutiny on what we were trying to achieve.
My overriding impression of this Ministerial was how much was subject to side meetings and bi and multi-lateral negotiations, rather than decisions in the formal meeting. Planning is key and fortunately our three top priorities were achieved. These were securing the future of the ExoMars mission that will look for signs of past and present life on Mars; innovation support for a new type of flexible telecommunication satellite, Quantum; and our ongoing support for human exploration that included the flight of UK ESA astronaut, Tim Peake, to the International Space Station in 2015.
For the next Ministerial meeting in Lucerne in December 2016, again celebrating my birthday with ESA, there was a much larger, more ambitious programme on offer. Deciding on UK priorities at this Ministerial was a challenge and subject to live negotiations. We were able to show via independent research that the UK gets a very good return from its ESA membership with £10 being returned for every £1 spent, but there were also a number of very inspirational missions on the table. Some of ESA’s upcoming missions, including the soon to be launched Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury, have key UK science experiments on board. In all, UK Ministers committed €1.44bn with ESA in Lucerne in December 2016 and UK gained leadership in all commercial programmes including telecommunication, navigation and earth observation
Looking ahead to the 2019 Ministerial meeting in Spain my heart has already gone into overdrive with ESA presenting their high-level vision that includes science missions measuring gravitational waves that could fundamentally change our understanding of the universe, the future of international space exploration beyond the ISS that includes a deep space gateway and returning samples from Mars, and a mission to study space weather.
These are all fantastic projects with the potential for significant UK involvement as we remain a committed ESA member.
And I’m personally grateful for the ESA experiences that have made – and I’m sure will continue to make – some of my own birthdays so memorable.