While the European Space Agency has centers in many different countries, the beating heart of the Europe’s space program is here in the unassuming town of Noordwijk in the western Netherlands. This remote sciencetown is where the future of space exploration is being written, built and tested.
The European Space Research and Technology Centre, or ESTEC, is the largest ESA center in Europe. Founded in 1968, it’s located on the Dutch coast in South Holland, about 35 kilometres (21 miles) southwest of Amsterdam.
You can think of ESTEC as an aerospace incubator, a research and development hub that lays the groundwork for most of the agency’s projects and missions, including the Rosetta space probe, and human spaceflight to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
The facility includes an extensive test center for testing spacecraft and satellites before they’re launched into orbit. In fact nearly all of the equipment that ESA launches is tested in some part at ESTEC before it’s sent into space. Before humans’ first rendezvous with a comet, the Rosetta spacecraft and its Philae lander were tested in simulated space conditions here.
About 2,500 people work at the center as scientists, engineers and technicians. The center even has its own police, fire brigade and ambulances. ESTEC is open free to the public once a year, in October. However next door to the technical facility you’ll find the Space Expo, which acts as ESTEC’s visitors center. From there you can schedule tours to take the “Space Train” to visit ESTEC. Space Expo also features a space exploration year-round.
Know Before You Go
If you are in Noordwijk or close, visit the compound and walk around it. They will not let you in, but you can see a lot. If you can, visit during the open day in October. The compound is well guarded and off limits for visitors, apart from one day a year in October where they open their gates to the public, for free.