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Space in the Bulb Region: Sixty years of ESTEC in Noordwijk, from 'bollengrond' to 'centre of the universe'

08 augustus 2023

In the early 1960s, the European Space Agency was supposed to come to Delft. But the soft subsoil of the site near the Dutch town made construction of what is now ESA's technical heart impossible. Some bulb fields on the outskirts of Noordwijk did prove suitable.

Original article in Dutch by Roza van der Veer in Leidsch Dagblad

The arrival of the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands was not a done deal in the early 1960s. Admittedly, the then prime minister Cals had given the order to bring an international institution to the Netherlands but it was not very easy.

The then top civil servant Johan Ferrier was given the assignment but had to compete with Belgium. That was the favourite candidate of many European countries to host the test centre of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), Europe's organisation for scientific research in space.

A successor to the Commission Préparatoire Européenne de Recherche Spatiale (COPERS), established in Switzerland in December 1960.

The empty site where ESTEC is to come in 1965. © Photo European Space Agency - ESA

Former ESTEC employee Pieter van Beekhuizen dove into the archives for the Pioneers of Space project that will celebrate ESTEC's 60th anniversary in Noordwijk next year.

"There are two versions that we still have to find out exactly. It is said to have been between the Netherlands and Switzerland or the Netherlands and Belgium. The story goes that then foreign minister Jozef Luns was upset about a resolution in the UN on the decolonisation of New Guinea. Certain European countries voted against the will of the Netherlands. He is said to have phoned them to tell them to make amends. That made it five for the Netherlands and four for Belgium,'' he says elatedly.

There is also another, less exciting explanation for the choice of the Netherlands. The Netherlands offered enough advantages to the then ESRO, thinks Massimiliano Mazza, director of Noordwijk-based ATG, a company supplying dozens of workers to ESA. "Those advantages were the deciding factor for ESTEC to be located in Noordwijk. Otherwise it would have been somewhere else, probably in Germany."

ESTEC being built in 1965. © Photo European Space Agency - ESA

Exactly why the Netherlands was chosen is still being researched in the archives. But it is certain that on 4 April 1962, the decision was taken to locate the space institute in the Netherlands. In Delft. Amersfoort was not selected because there were too few facilities there. Only the location proved unsuitable due to the soft clay soil, 'prutgrond' in Van Beekhuizen's words.

The then director even seemed to joke that the cows at the intended location would have to keep on moving because if they stood still, they would sink.

At the insistence of the then ESRO council, a new site had to be sought. Reason for Belgium to again put the site near Zaventem up for tender but without success. In October 1964, Noordwijk was finally chosen. The state bought the bulb fields and the architects, who had already drawn up a plan for the Delft site, were able to complete the design further.

However, there appeared to be another bump to overcome. Archive research by Van Beekhuizen shows that neighbouring municipality Katwijk then threw its back against the wall. The proposed site was zoned for bulb land and Katwijk threatened to obstruct a zoning change.

Van Beekhuizen: "Katwijk threatened to delay the plan. At the same time, Katwijk wanted to build housing on the north side of the Rhine, and Noordwijk was opposed to this. Top official Ferrier mediated after which both municipalities swallowed their objections. The Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant (NRC) wrote on 14 October 1966: 'Noordwijk may become the centre of the universe'.

ESTEC was officially inaugurated on 3 April 1968 by Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus. They were given a tour that ended in the canteen where they were given a model of a satellite by the then ESTEC director Werner Kleen. © Photo European Space Agency - ESA

For the time being, that centre of the universe was housed in prefab offices. This is where the employees, who had started working from 1962 in premises rented from TU Delft, were housed. Theo van de Laar, one of the first employees remembers that first period when little was arranged. "We got the paper from the copier, a pencil I took myself", he says.

Over the years, staff numbers grew rapidly. For instance, Corien Glaudemans from The Hague recalls that her father, who was working as a warehouse manager at the Fokker factory at what was then Ypenburg, was stationed in Noordwijk for six months. "My mother was very happy because he suddenly got more salary. They could use that. He just had to promise to come back to Fokker."

Van Beekhuizen: "In December 1963 there were 95 staff members working at ESTEC, a year later there were 270 and another year later 364. The building plans of 33,000 square metres envisaged workplaces for 800 people. But in the beginning it was really a Mickey Mouse site."

In 1966, ESTEC became operational with a test chamber and a number of clean rooms. Only that same year disaster struck. On 14 October 1966, a fire destroyed all temporary buildings on the ESTEC site and the office space for 150 staff members went up in smoke.

A solution was found in hotels in and around Noordwijk, among other places. Van Beekhuizen remembers from the stories of his brother who worked at ESTEC.

"Huis ter Duin was closed during the winter months. The hotel staff were then asked if they wanted to work longer after which the rooms were turned into offices. Van Rooyen's vending machine on Hoofdstraat (next to the church) functioned as the canteen. My sister-in-law was working at the reception desk at the time and thus met my brother who also worked in prefab. So you see how everything depends on coincidences."

The fire in 1966. © Photo European Space Agency ESA

Brian Taylor, who joined the ESLAB integrated with ESTEC, was given an office on the 's-Gravendamseweg. "It was a former nurses' flat. This is the only office I've ever had with a bathroom." Rebuilding was quickly taken up and by April 1967, all staff members from Delft as well as the Noordwijk hotels could start working at the Noordwijk location. A year later, in April, Princess Beatrix opened the space complex.

180 missions

In the years that followed, ESTEC grew into Europe's largest space centre and the technical heart of ESA (European Space Organisation, founded in 1975 as a merger of ESRO, which develops spacecraft, and the troubled European Launcher Development Organisation ELDO) with its own launch base in Kourou (French Guyana) and its own Ariane rockets.

In Noordwijk, the satellites are tested to see if they can handle the extreme conditions in space because sending a mechanic along in case of a malfunction is obviously not possible on a space mission. More than 180 space missions have thus passed through the gates of ESTEC in recent years before being sent into space. And there are many more in the pipeline.

New construction

Not only satellites but also the ESTEC site will be hard at work in the coming years. This year, the conference centre (the International Meeting Facility for which the Netherlands has made €15 million available) should be put into use. A large test area will also be refurbished.

Open day at ESTEC ESA the acoustic test room. © Archive photo Hielco Kuipers

In the coming years, the offices and laboratories, still dating from the 1960s, will be renovated, also with a Dutch contribution. "This is badly needed because they are not very energy efficient. There are draughts and there have even been leaks," says Marco Massaro, head of Estate and Facilities. This year, finances should be in place for the major refurbishment.

Retirement wave

Apart from the buildings, another big job awaits ESA and therefore also ESTEC in the coming years, namely ensuring sufficient personnel. Between 2020 and 2030, 44 per cent of the staff will retire, with a peak around 2023-2024. Those vacancies need to be filled. Each candidate must have a master's degree, speak good English and be from one of the ESA countries.

Lucy van der Tas, head of Talent Acquisition at ESTEC, has quite a task because, especially for people with experience, it is not easy to move to another country.

"Young people are still mobile but if there are also working partners, the choice becomes more difficult. This is also true if the salary is good, there are sports facilities, there is an international crèche nearby and, if there is high demand, a bus runs to the international schools nearby", says Van der Tas.

She points out that working for ESA/ESTEC is especially fun. "It is an international environment where people work with a lot of passion. In April, for example, the launch of 'Juice' to Jupiter was a magical moment where people were watching with tears in their eyes. In addition, working conditions are attractive and many young people want to work on something that serves a higher purpose. But despite this, finding good people remains a challenge. In that respect, ESTEC is not unique."

Space in the Bulb Region

This story is part of an eight-part series on the impact of the space complex in the Bulb Region and surrounding area. This series is powered by the South Holland Journalism Quality Impulse of the province of South Holland. In the first story about the Noordwijk ESTEC, we look back in history. In part 2, former employees look back on the early years in Noordwijk. 

Original article in Dutch by Roza van der Veer in Leidsch Dagblad

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