65th RJ Mitchell Lecture 2021

Shooting for the Stars  

The First Half Century of ESA Mission Operations

Dr Paolo Ferri

Former Head of Mission Operations Department, European Space Agency

Image © Andy Rankine

This lecture was held on Thursday 4th March 2021


We were pleased to welcome back Dr Paolo Ferri, former Head of Mission Operations Department, European Space Agency to present the 65th RJ MITCHELL LECTURE.

Poster for this lecture


Image © ESA/J. Mai

The European Space Agency did not yet exist when the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, was inaugurated, in September 1967. The precursor space agency at that time was called ESRO, the same name of the first satellite successfully put into orbit in May 1968: ESRO-II.

This was the beginning of ESOC’s long history of successes in space mission operations, which have seen the growth of European efforts in space from the first steps, which involved first controlling small scientific satellites in relatively low Earth orbits, then moving on to the first European telecommunications and meteorological satellites in geostationary orbit, to low orbiters for Earth observation and constellations of navigation satellites. In parallel, ESOC built its unique expertise and competence in the operations of increasingly ambitious and complex scientific missions, from space telescopes in highly elliptical Earth orbits and later at the Sun-Earth Lagrange points, to pioneering missions in deep space to visit the planets and other minor bodies of our solar system.

In its long history the operations centre evolved, by adapting to the evolution of ground technologies, both in the fields of telecommunications and computer hardware and software, but also to the changing challenges posed by the spacecraft to be controlled. From the early years, when spacecraft were fully manually controlled from ground and their hardware failed very quickly in space, limiting their lifetime and making mission control a sort of growing nightmare, to the more mature spacecraft of the new millennium, where hardware failures are rare, their autonomy has increased, but software complexity and problems have become the driving factors in the life of mission control.

This lecture will recall the milestones of ESOC’s history, which is the history of European spaceflight, from the point of view of the presenter, who experienced directly in the control rooms the last three and a half decades of ESA mission operations. The emotions, the dramas and successes of the past, which have created ESOC’s huge and unique reservoir of experience, are highlighted through anecdotes and real life stories of mission control.

History of the RJ Mitchell lecture

The R J Mitchell lecture is the prestige named lecture of the Solent branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Held annually, the lecture was established in 1954. Since that first lecture given by Mr. Joe Smith, a colleague of Mitchell's, many well known names from the aerospace world have accepted the invitation to present this lecture. The event has assumed international status with speakers from the USA and Europe.


Reginald Mitchell was the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire and the Schneider Trophy winning seaplane, the Supermarine S6B. Mitchell was born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1895, and moved to Southampton in 1916 where he lived and worked until his death in 1937 at the early age of 42.

At the age of 24 he became chief designer and the following year was made chief engineer as well, for the Supermarine Aviation works which had it's factory in the city. By the time he was 33 he was director and chief engineer of the company, which was then owned by the famous engineering firm of Vickers.

As well as the legendary Spitfire which first flew from what is now Southampton airport, he designed a total of 23 aircraft in just 16 years.

Past lectures

View details of the RJ Mitchell lectures since 1954 here.