The ESC in session at the Palais d’Egmont on 15 April 1975 © ESA
Exploring Belgium’s space connections on the eve of the Space Council in Brussels
Wed, 22/05/2024 - 08:45

Belgium’s hosting of the EU-ESA Space Council on 23 May 2024 is the most recent in a long line of space-related milestones to take place in Brussels. Today we take a closer look at the places behind space history in Brussels, and celebrate its long association with European activities in space as the capital of Europe, in the same month that we also mark 20 years since the entry into force of the EC/ESA Framework Agreement.

The forthcoming Space Council is the latest in a twenty-year series of meetings between ministers representing the European Union and ESA Member States – it is being held in the EU Council Europa Building in Brussels under the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the German Chair of the ESA Council at ministerial level. The first ever of these European ‘Space Councils', which provide a forum for development of the overall European space programme, was also held in Brussels in late 2004 in the EU’s Justus Lipsius Building, the main seat of the Council of the European Union and the General Secretariat of the Council.

Historical precedents and the European Space Conference

Going back in time even further and almost fifty years, the seeds of the ESA story could be considered to have been sown at a series of meetings in Brussels, culminating in the final meeting of the European Space Conference, on 15 April 1975, which adopted the text of the Convention for the new European Space Agency and nominated Roy Gibson as its first Director General. This was the last of the meetings of the European Space Conference, originally created in 1966 to coordinate the activities of ESA’s predecessors ELDO and ESRO, and which subsequently put in place the mechanisms for their amalgamation to create ESA.

The very first ESA Bulletin, produced in June 1975, reported in full a statement made by Roy Gibson to ministers at this final ESC meeting, including the following statement of intent: “We realise how much political effort has gone into the formation of ESA and we are determined to make of it an instrument you can be proud to have created.”

In fact, four of the ESC meetings that comprised much of this political effort took place in Brussels. The Fourth ESC was divided into two sessions that were held in the Tour du Midi, from 22-24 July and on 4 November 1970. The final three conferences took place on 20 December 1972, 12 and 31 July 1973 and 15 April 1975; all three were hosted at the Palais d’Egmont in Place du Petit Sablon.

From skyscrapers to mansions

The choice of venues also takes us on a contrasting architectural journey, from the 38-story, 148-metre Tour du Midi to the palatial complex that was formerly the residence of the Counts of Egmont and later the Dukes of Arenberg.

The skyscraper was constructed in the mid-1960s for the Belgian Federal Pensions Service, which still occupies it today, and it is therefore often referred to as the Pensions Tower. On its completion, it was the tallest building in the European Economic Area. Hence it would have been just a few years old when it hosted the Fourth ESC – and as a feat of engineering was perhaps a very appropriate venue for discussions on the future European space programmes which would see ESA into the twenty-first century!

The Palais d’Egmont has a 500-year history that is much more challenging to synthesize. While the first constructions on this site date back to the 1500s, it was subject to large-scale modifications and significant rebuilding in various phases from the mid-1700s to the early twentieth century, leaving the site today as a largely neo-classical ensemble. Since 1964, it has functioned as an international conference centre, and in addition to the ESC, has also hosted major diplomatic events including the Accession of the UK, Ireland, Norway and Denmark to the EEC in 1972.

Find out more about the ESC and ESA’s predecessors

The holdings of the ESA Archives on the European Space Conference are hosted by the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU) in accordance with a deposit agreement with the European University Institute. The HAEU website offers access to the digitised ESC fonds, along with those for the other pre-ESA European space organisations – COPERS, ELDO and ESRO. (Please note that to access material from the HAEU website you will need to create an account or login to your existing account)

In a happy coincidence, this digitised material was first published in May 2019, so we can also take this opportunity to celebrate five years of digitised assets relating to ESA’s predecessors on the HAEU website.

Explore further

More about the Space Council on 23 May
Palais d’Egmont history
More about the Tour du Midi
The history of the Justus Lipsius and the Europa