European Space Agency
The European Space Agency (ESA) is an inter-governmental organisation dedicated to exploration of space and its exploitation. Its headquarters are in Paris, France. The ESA has a staff of about 1,900 and its budget was 2,700 million euro in 2003.
ESA's spaceport (its launch site) is the Guiana space centre in Kourou, French Guiana, a site chosen because it is close to the equator, thereby allowing easier (less fuel for a given mass) access to commercially important orbits such as GEO. ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany.
The precursor of the European Space Agency, ESRO (European Space Research Organisation) was established on March 20, 1964 per an agreement signed on June 14, 1962. The ESRO's successor organisation ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre, based in Noordwijk, the Netherlands) is still a part of ESA, though ESA itself is a much bigger organisation today. ESA in its current form was founded in 1974, when ESRO was merged with the ELDO, the European launcher development organisation.
ESA consists of fifteen member states — that is, it is the product of a merger of (or comprises of) national space organisations from these countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. France is the main contributor (see also CNES).
Since January 1, 1979, Canada has the special status of cooperating state with the ESA. By virtue of this accord, Canada takes part in ESA's deliberative bodies and decision-making and also in ESA's programmes and activities. Canadian firms can bid for and receive contracts to work on programmes. The accord has a provision ensuring a fair industrial return to Canada.
Hungary and the Czech Republic signed the five-year Plan for European Cooperating State (PECS), that is aimed at preparing the states for full membership. Their firms can bid for and receive contracts to work on programmes. The countries can participate in almost all programmes, except for the Basic Technology Research Programme. The membership fees are much lower than with full membership.
ESA has entered into a major joint venture with Russia (see below).
Currently, ESA is not within the structures of the European Union (EU) — note that its membership contains non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway. There are ties between the organisations, with various agreements in place and being worked on, to establish the legal status of ESA with regard to the EU . There are common goals between ESA and the EU, and ESA has an EU liaison office in Brussels. The EU in particular wishes to secure political control of Europe's space access, an issue of vital importance for Europe's political and economic role in the world.
The Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) is the French government space agency (administratively, a "public establishment of industrial and commercial character"). Its headquarters are in central Paris.
Italian Space Agency
Operating under the Ministry of the Universities and of Scientific and Technological Research, the agency cooperates with numerous entities active in space technology and with the president of the Council of Ministers. Internationally, the ASI provides Italy's delegation to the Council of the European Space Agency and to its subordinate bodies.
German Aerospace Center
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) (German: Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V.) is the national research center for aviation and space flight of the Federal Republic of Germany and of other member states in the Helmholtz Association.
Its extensive research and development projects are included in national and international cooperative programs. In addition to its research projects, the center is the assigned space agency of Germany bestowing headquarters of German space flight activities and its associates.
Launch vehicle fleet
ESA has made great progress towards its goal of having a complete fleet of launch vehicles in service, competing in all sectors of the launch market. ESA's fleet will soon consist of three major rocket designs:
- Ariane 5 - ESA's large payload (ca. 6 metric tons to GTO) launcher, in service since 1997. (Several revisions are planned.) 
- Soyuz - a Russian medium payload (ca. 3 metric tons to GTO) launcher to be brought into ESA service in 2007 (see below). 
- Vega - ESA's small payload (ca. 1.5 metric tons to 700km orbit) launcher; its first launch is planned for 2006. 
ESA has entered into a 340 million euro joint venture with the Russian Federal Space Agency over the use of the Soyuz launcher . Under the agreement, the Russian agency will manufacture Soyuz rocket parts for ESA, which will then be shipped to French Guiana for assembly. ESA benefits because it gains a medium payloads launcher, complementing its fleet while saving on development costs. In addition, the Soyuz rocket — which has been the Russian's space launch workhorse for some 40 years — is proven technology with a good safety record, which ESA might be happy to use for launching humans into space. Russia also benefits in that it will get access to the Kourou launch site. Launching from Kourou rather than Baikonur will allow the Russians to almost double the Soyuz payload (3.0 tons vs. 1.7 tons), because of Kourou's closer proximity to the equator. Both sides benefit from the long term strategic cooperation (which will also be used to jointly develop future technology). It might be worth pointing out that France (which again is the main contributor to ESA) has historically had good relations with Russia. This may have been instrumental in reaching this agreement. (See this EuroNews report about the joint venture (Real video stream).)
ESA is taking part in the construction and operation of the ISS, having built the Columbus orbital facility for it — a science laboratory module that will be brought into orbit as soon as the Space Shuttle goes back into service.
Further ESA projects include:
- Galileo positioning system — a proposed satellite positioning system
- Mars Express — a space probe to Mars
- Venus Express — a space probe to Venus
- Rosetta — a space probe launched 2004 that will land on a comet
- Hipparcos — a space-based astrometry mission
- Smart 1 — testing new propulsion technology
The ESA has also collaborated with NASA on several missions: