September 2016 Astronautics

Preparing the future: the right technology at the right time

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an organisation continuously planning the impossible. Future missions and applications are first outlined when they are still well beyond the current edge of the technology envelope.

Silicon wafers etched with integrated circuits for space missions.
Silicon wafers etched with integrated circuits for space missions.
Franco Ongaro Franco Ongaro ESA Director of Technical and Quality Management, The Netherlands

The European Space Agency (ESA) is an organisation continuously planning the impossible. Future missions and applications are first outlined when they are still well beyond the current edge of the technology envelope. But these grand plans are then methodically brought into the realm of the possible, thanks to a steady stream of targeted innovation

ESA channels around eight per cent of its budget into direct technology research and development, an activity mandated in the agency’s founding convention. ESA’s Directorate of Technical and Quality Management runs a suite of technology programmes covering various technical maturity levels and domains. The Directorate’s goal is to ensure enabling technologies become available at the point when upcoming ESA and European missions needs them - one definition of innovation being ‘the right technology at the right time’.

As well as enabling new varieties of missions, technology development also maintains and expands Europe’s general industrial state-of-theart, boosting the competitiveness of the European space sector in global markets. Compared to other spacefaring nations, Europe finds itself in a unique position, with a space industry that more than pays for itself.

ESA itself, and European institutional space activities in general, would be economically unviable except for the continued vitality of the wider European space industry - especially in the

satellite telecommunications market. Europe’s competitors, by contrast, receive significantly higher shares of institutional support, including effective military subsidies.

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