55 years of ESRIN - relive the foundation ceremony on 27 September 1968!


Communications activities in the decade before ESA – new collection open


Opening of third document collection: ESA Brochures


Reading between the lines?


Opening of images from 1975 – the dawn of the era of ESA

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ESA Archives

The ESA archives both preserves ESA’s institutional memory and promotes and exploits Europe’s scientific and technical legacy in space. An important part of our work, and the purpose of this website, is making our vast resources available online to anyone with an interest in the story and benefits of European endeavours and cooperation in space.

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LIIIS becomes Ariane in September 1973

The origins of the Ariane programme can be traced back to the 1970s and a project entrusted by the European Space Council to ESA’s predecessor ESRO, called LIIIS, to develop a competitive European satellite launcher. LIIIS was the working name adopted for the ‘third generation substitute launcher’ (hence the three ‘i’s), the heir to the abandoned ELDO Europa 3 programme. The name Ariane was adopted by delegates at ESRO’s AFC (Administrative and Finance Committee) fifty years ago, in September 1973. In his book Advocate of Space Swiss delegate Peter Creola recounts the heated debates over a new name – “a whole continent was embroiled in a row between competing interpretations of classical mythology”. He doesn’t explain why Ariane was proposed but admits that it was chosen simply because it was only option left on the table! Whereas André Lebeau in Ariane: Entretiens avec André Lebeau tells us that the name was effectively imposed by French Minister Jean Charbonnel.

If, like us, you need a recap, in Greek mythology Ariadne was a Cretan princess and the daughter of King Minos, known for using a ball of thread to help Theseus escape the Labyrinth. Perhaps her subsequent deification by her husband Dionysus as the Goddess of paths and labyrinths is the clue to the link with the launcher? Or could it be in the Corona Borealis constellation, created when Dionysus set her wedding diadem into the heavens?

This image shows a fold-out technical drawing of the LIIIS launcher, from an annexe to a dossier of CNES preliminary studies produced in March 1973. These initial studies all contained a planned date of 1980 for a maiden flight. In the event, ESA beat them to it by one week and the success of Ariane’s first launch, on 24 December 1979, paved the way to hundreds of further launches, and a significant share of global commercial launch contracts.

If you are interested in the continuation of the Ariane story, check ESA’s Space Transportation pages for updates on the development of the Ariane-6 launcher and its first flight.


ELDO business card printing plates

This month we are showcasing a recent rediscovery from the Archives. Almost forgotten on the shelves of the ECSR’s stack was a small blue box, with an intriguing list of contents handwritten on its top cover: ‘Plaques pour cartes visite’.

Inside are a set of engraved printing plates, we think in copper, for business cards for the top management of ELDO. ELDO was the European Launcher Development Organisation, also known as the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation, which existed from 1964 to 1975, when it was merged with ESRO (the European Space Research Organisation) to become ESA.

In the picture is the printing plate for the Secretary General of ELDO, General Robert Aubinière (find out more about him in our glossary), obviously back to front. We were interested by the disparity between the French acronym for ELDO – CECLES, for Centre Européen pour la Construction de Lanceurs d'Engins Spatiaux – and the spelled out (and lengthier) organisation name of ‘Organisation Européenne pour la Mise au Point et la Construction de Lanceurs d’Engins Spatiaux’. This seems to mirror the variations in the organisation’s name in English mentioned above. We are grateful that in 1975 ESA adopted a much simpler name!

What’s also striking is that all the plates are only in French. We might assume from this that the organisational culture of ELDO was very much francophone, unlike today’s multicultural ESA.

Sadly, the box doesn’t contain all the items listed on its cover and the plates for the generic ELDO-CECLES cards are missing. But it’s still a wonderful find and a great insight into the world of ELDO in the 1970s and traditional copperplate printing methods. We also think this image (a scan of the plate) brings to mind some of the stunning images of space produced by the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes!

A serenade to ESRO-1B

21 June is known around the world as the Fête de la Musique or Make Music Day. Established in Paris in 1982 by Jack Lang of the French Ministry of Culture, the festival is now celebrated in more than 700 cities in 120 countries, including Germany, Italy, Greece and the UK, with people encouraged to play music outside in public spaces or attend free concerts.

To encourage your musical aspirations, why not start with space? Here is the ESRO-1B (Boreas) satellite, one of the first pair of ESRO satellites which was launched in 1969 to study near-Earth space and which inspired a piece of music by avant-garde Italian composer Bruno Maderna. At that time Maderna was living in Darmstadt, home to both the famous Darmstädter Ferienkurse for contemporary classical music and to ESRO’s European Space Operations Centre, which was responsible for operating satellites after their launch. It was therefore natural that the Director of ESOC, Umberto Montalenti, also a patron of the arts, gave the commission for a piece of music to celebrate the launch to Maderna.

Ironically, the subsequent composition – Serenata per un Satellite – enjoyed greater success than the satellite itself. Due to launcher underperformance the satellite was injected into too low an orbit and reentry inevitably occurred within two months. In her book How to survive in Space, staff member Madeleine Schäfer recounts that this led to the ESOC colleagues disrespectfully renaming the piece Serenade to a Dying Satellite.

The score of the Serenata is written in an open style that allows the performers to begin reading at several points – you can listen to various interpretations of it on YouTube.

Unfortunately, the ESA Archives holds no material related to Maderno’s composition and its link to ESA, and so our research had to be carried out using internet sources. These gaps in our holdings are arguably as important as those we do have: they highlight how certain kinds of material do not easily find their way into formal collections and the challenge institutional archives face in acting as a collective memory. And they also underline the important contribution of the community behind an organisation in supporting the preservation of its culture and memories.


Lord Louis Mountbatten on an informal visit to ESOC in 1972

To celebrate the coronation of King Charles III on 6 May, this month we are highlighting ESRO’s royal connections, and a July 1972 visit by the UK’s former Admiral of the Fleet - Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, to ESOC.

This photograph shows Lord Mountbatten, on the right, with then ESRO Director of Administration Roy Gibson at the flipchart. (We think the man seated on the left is C G Giles from the Research Division of the UK Department of Trade and Industry, and the man seated in the centre is most likely S. A. Jenssen, Acting director of ESOC). Gibson recounts in his book Recollections that ESRO was contacted by the British Foreign Office with a request to demonstrate its Remote Console System – RECON – to Lord Mountbatten at ESOC. RECON was the first online search system in Europe, based on data retrieval using keywords, which was completed and operational in August 1969. It was managed by the ESRO Space Documentation Service in Frascati, with terminals across Europe.

Lord Mountbatten had a long career in the Royal Navy, where he specialised in wireless and wrote two handbooks for the Navy on wireless telegraphy, culminating with several high-ranking positions prior to his retirement in 1965. He became Chairman of the newly formed National Electronics Research Council in July 1964, was President of the Institution of Electronics and Radio Engineers in 1947 and 1961 and elected to Honorary Membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1965 for his ‘contributions to the progress of electrical and electronic science and engineering’.

Roy Gibson and Lord Mountbatten were known to each other, probably from their time in military service in South Asia, and Mountbatten recognised him on his arrival at ESOC. Gibson describes the event: He looked at me standing at the top of the steps and said: "Gibson, what the bloody hell are you doing here?" "It's me, the boss" I replied". (Gibson, of course, would go on to become ESA’s first Director General in 1975.)

Lord Mountbatten was a close relative of the British royal family. His great-grandmother was Queen Victoria, which made him a second cousin, once removed, to Queen Elizabeth II. He was also Prince Philip's uncle, and therefore great-uncle to King Charles III. Known as ‘Uncle Dickie’, the then Prince Charles and Lord Mountbatten were known to have had a close relationship.

Scale model of ELDO’s Europa launcher

Europa was the first European satellite launcher development programme. ESA’s predecessor ELDO was responsible for 11 Europa launches (F1 - F11) between 1964 and 1971, from Woomera in Australia and Kourou in French Guiana. Find out more about these launches in our Space Timeline. Spiralling costs and disappointing tests of the upper stages led to the eventual closure of the programme in 1973.

But beyond the launcher itself, there’s also the fascinating story of this physical object, and its own particular journey to being held in the ECSR collections.

From the ESA side, things all began in 2019 when a colleague forwarded an email to the Archives team. The message was from an Italian man whose mother had worked for Renzo Carrobio di Carrobio, Secretary General of ELDO from its creation in 1964 until 1971. He had inherited the model from his mother (to whom it had been gifted by Carrobio di Carrobio). Worried that his young child might damage the model when playing with it, he offered to donate it to ESA. Naturally, the Archives were delighted to accept this wonderful piece of space heritage. In return, ESA offered a replacement model - of ESA’s Vega launcher - to the son as a much safer model to play with!

We are very grateful to the generosity of this particular person, through which we have an important physical link to the first ELDO Secretary General, and to everyone who has given material to the Archives over the years. We are always here for any future donations!

ESA’s ‘new’ Headquarters under construction in 1976

In 2023, after almost three years of construction, the opening of ESA’s new Headquarters building in 8-10 Rue Mario Nikis, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, is imminent. But this won’t be the first Head Office building on this site – here you can see works in May 1976 to prepare the original HQ building in rue Nikis for the arrival of staff in October of that year.

However, Rue Nikis wasn’t the first home for ESA’s Headquarters. After starting life in various Paris locations, ESA’s predecessors - the European Space Research Organisation and European Launcher Development Organisation - came together in 1967 in rented accommodation at 114 Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly-sur-Seine. And it was at this address that ESA came into being in 1975, with the merger of ESRO and ELDO, and where the search began for suitable office space for ESA’s own building.

The right location was found in former electronic components laboratories in a street named after Mario Nikis (1908-1944). We think Nikis was an alumnus of the nearby Ecole Supérieure d’Electricité (in Rue Germaine de Staël) who went on to work for French national radio, and was Director of the Nikis Laboratories in Clermont-Ferrand and a French Resistance fighter.

Staff had the chance to see the renovation works to the site on a visit in July 1976 and the works were completed by the autumn. ESA Bulletin No. 7 announced in November 1976 that staff had moved in on 18 October.

Assembling the Skylark sounding rocket payload in August 1965

Skylark was a family of British sounding rockets and the UK’s first space rocket. In the 1960s and 1970s ESA’s predecessor ESRO used two types of Skylark sounding rockets to conduct investigations as part of its operational programme (Raven VI/Cuckoo and Raven VI/Goldfinch), launching seven Skylark rockets from the Salto di Quirra range in Sardinia, Italy, between 1964 and 1965.

This photo appears to show the S.03 or S.04  payload being assembled at ESTEC. Generally, rocket-borne payloads were constructed in duplicate, both payloads being launched in succession: two boosted Skylark rockets carrying this payload were launched at sunrise in Sardinia on 30 September and 2 October 1965, to investigate atmospheric parameters using release experiments. Both launches were successful and all emissions were observed. One of the experiments, R-33: Barium release, was undertaken by Professor Reimar Lüst of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, who would go on to become ESA’s third Director General in 1984. We can’t be sure but we think he could be the man in the middle!

Edoardo Amaldi visits ESTEC in 1979

The Italian physicist Amaldi is one of ESA’s founding fathers. A key advocate of the establishment of a European organisation for space from the very start, his open letter of 1959, urging the creation of a European organisation for space, set in motion the process that led to the founding of ESA’s predecessors, ESRO and ELDO in 1962.

In the wake of this, ESRO’s European Space Research Institute in Frascati (ESRIN), was established in 1966 and is home today to the ESA Archives at the European Centre for Space Records. Ironically, one of the gaps in our holdings is any photo of Amaldi from these early years, particularly as we have his signature in the ESRIN guest books!

Following the merger of ESRO and ELDO to form ESA in 1975, Amaldi became Chair of its Science Programme Committee in July 1979. He is seen here in that same year, visiting ESTEC, ESA’s technical hub in the Netherlands, 20 years after it all began. (Amaldi is on the right, on the left is Massimo Trella, ESA Technical Director.)