How Switzerland conquered outer space

Since the 1950s, Switzerland has sought to play an active role in international programs for the exploration and development of outer space, and has realized that all of this can hardly be combined with a policy of neutrality. However, it was more important for the official Bern to strengthen the country’s position as a leading research platform.

This content was published on July 21, 2019 – 10:00 AM

Andrea Tonina (Andrea Tonina), Russian version: Igor Petrov


The first Swiss astronaut in space: Claude Nicollier repaired the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999. Keystone / Str

“(…) A person’s first contact with the surface of another celestial body is proof of the competence, courage and entrepreneurial spirit of a great nation. This success will be one of the most remarkable milestones in man’s quest to study and master the forces of the universe. The development of this project has been seen with even greater interest by the research community in Switzerland, given that the University of Bern was given a unique opportunity to participate in a scientific experiment carried out on the surface of the moon.

May the Apollo 11 mission usher in a new era of cooperation in space for the prosperity of all peoples. “

Telegram textExternal reference Swiss Federal President Ludwig van Moos (1910-1990, Swiss President 1964 and 1969) addressed the President of the United States R. Nixon on July 21, 1969.

end of deposit

Today, exactly 50 years ago, the first man stepped on the surface of the moon. These days, Switzerland remembers this outstanding achievement of the human mind and pioneering spirit, not to forget the role that Switzerland played in this victory in the person of e.g. University of Bernwhose scientists developed an innovative “sun sail” that was revealed by the first man on the moon even before the American flag.

Why was this Swiss success even possible? In many ways, you have to thank for this a happy combination of circumstances. In addition, Switzerland’s participation in the Apollo 11 mission was made possible by the objectively high level of science in the Union as a whole. “At that time, Switzerland was very active in taking part in international space exploration programs, at least at European level,” said Franziska Ruchti, a researcher at the Swiss Diplomatic Document Archive (Diplomatische Dokumente der Schweiz / dodisExternal reference).

A small country is looking for partners

The Earth’s first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, and the founding of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led to the fact that the question in the countries of Western Europe suddenly arose: what is the real role of the old world in space racing? which was unleashed by Moscow and Washington?

In 1960, at the invitation of the Swiss Minister for Foreign Affairs, Max Petitpierre (Max Petitpierre, 1899-1994), representatives of a number of Western European countries gathered in the city of Meyrin near Geneva, where the headquarters of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is located. FoundationExternal reference for European space cooperation.


Participant in the European Ministerial Conference on Space Exploration 1960, Meyrin, Switzerland. The conference was hosted by Swiss Foreign Minister Max Petipierre. ESA-CIRS

The conference participants were both scientists and representatives of the expert community, as well as influential politicians. They were the ones who then gave the decisive impetus to the founding of the European Space Research Organization (ESRO) in Switzerland. One of the founding members of this structure was the Confederation.

“Perhaps it was precisely this self-perception of our selves as” de la Suisse comme petit pays “(” Switzerland as a small country “) that helped to realize that the union alone can never take a decisive step towards the foundations of space,” says a veteran Swiss diplomatic service Jakob Burkhardt, whose effortsExternal reference In 1964, Switzerland became one of the members of ESRO. At the time, he was head of the department of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs (then it was actually called a little different – the political department / EPD) for international organizations.

Flexible interpretation of the term “neutrality”

The high-ranking diplomat was well aware that Swiss cooperation in the field of space exploration with NATO countries could very quickly reach the limits of the status of a neutral country that Switzerland had, given that both west and east space studied and mastered, including with aimed at military defense aspects.


This material is part of a series of publications dedicated to the most resonant and iconic stories in the history of Swiss diplomacy. This publication has been prepared in collaboration with the Swiss Archives of Diplomatic Documents (Dodis). dodis

For him, however, circumstances of a completely different nature were much more important in this area from the outset. “We can not and do not have the right to interpret our foreign policy so narrowly that it ultimately prevents us from pursuing our scientific interests in the international arena,” he pointed out.

Emanuel Diez, head of the legal service at the then Swiss Foreign Ministry, took a different view. A few years later, he expressed “deep doubts about the extent to which cooperation between European countries and the United States in the implementation of the Apollo lunar flight program is combined with the postulates of Swiss neutrality.”

However, he even emphasized that, given the crucial importance of participation in international space cooperation for Switzerland, it is quite possible to turn a blind eye to this once and recommend not to suspend cooperation with the relevant structures and institutions.

Scientific and industrial interests

“As before, the issues of nuclear research, the problems associated with space exploration, forced our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address even more purely scientific issues, which until recently it was not at all interested in,” says F. Ruci.

In a speech in 1964, Jakob Burkhard considered International Conference on the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy, held in August 1955 in GenevaExternal referenceas a serious sign that international tensions have eased and a strategically important moment that forced Swiss diplomacy to finally change its approach to scientific research: since then it has begun to be seen as an important aspect that must really be taken into account when formulating a national foreign policy.

At least as important were the industrial aspects. The Swiss engineering and metalworking industry, as well as the companies in the Swiss military-industrial complex, already had significant experience and technologies that enabled the country to make its own and quite significant contribution to the development of space application technology. Companies from each industry were of course interested in receiving lucrative orders.

Switzerland’s participation in ESRO proved, at least initially, to be significant benefits for domestic industry. Such a conclusion can in any case be drawn from an analysis document prepared in 1970 by the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, the Swiss company Contraves, which was part of the military-industrial holding Oerlikon-Bührle-Gruppe, took an active part in the creation of the first two European artificial satellites (ESRO IA and IB).

From ESRO to ESA

Swiss industrialists also hoped that Switzerland would actively cooperate, with profit, with the European Launcher Development Organization (ELDO), which was founded in 1962 to create its own European launch vehicle. But later it turned out that, to begin with, they themselves, the industrialists, would have to invest in this structure before they could make a profit. As a result, the federal authorities advocated that Switzerland limit itself to observer status.

But when 1975, as a result of the merger of ESRO and ELDO, the modern European Space Agency (ESA) emerged, Switzerland no longer hesitated for a second and immediately became part of the new structure, which justified such a step as follows: “Switzerland membership in ESRO fully motivated all the trustees who were waiting for him (…). A large number of Swiss citizens work in this organization, some even in senior management positions.The Swiss industry also has nothing to complain about: it got its share of industrial orders from ESRO. ” These were the arguments listed in the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ circular telegram, which was sent to the country’s diplomatic missions in connection with accession to the ESA.

The importance of cooperation with ESRO, and later with ESA, was of course not limited to purely economic aspects. “Switzerland’s participation in European space organizations was a remarkable example of the successful European integration of the Confederacy outside and outside the European Community,” emphasizes Dodi’s director Sacha Zala.

In the structures of the European Space Agency, many Swiss also managed to take leading positions. Oerlikon Space (later RUAG Space), for example, supplied the so-called nose guards to the European launch vehicle Ariane, and the Swiss Claude Nicollier was selected to implement the program spacelabExternal referenceand became the only Swiss to date that has been outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Article in this material

This article has been migrated automatically from the old site to the new one. If you see incorrect or incorrect representations, feel free to report them to community-feedback@swissinfo.ch We apologize for the inconvenience.

According to JTI standards

According to JTI standards

See more: JTI certification for SWI swissinfo.ch

Leave a Comment