Space for Europe and for all humankind: A brief history of the ESA
In November 2014, a strange-looking little spider of a spacecraft caught the world's attention. It may have been one of the oddest-looking pioneers of all time, resembling a mini-refrigerator attached to an insect's legs. The spacecraft, christened Philae, electrified both die-hard space fans and casual observers despite its alien appearance. It made the first-ever soft landing on the face of a comet.
Philae actually made soft landings, as it “bounced” twice on the comet's surface after its landing harpoons did not deploy as planned. Eventually it settled down in its final resting spot, a craggy, dark region called Abydos. Here it delivered another surprise when it “reawakened” seven months after a lack of solar power put it into hibernation.
For some, one of the largest surprises was the identity of people who built Philae and the Rosetta orbiter that delivered it to the comet. While those casually in touch with space news focused on the mission's dramatic twists and turns, dedicated space-watchers recognized it as a historic mission for one oft-overlooked group—the European Space Agency (ESA).