Willy Benz, Universität Bern, President of the Swiss Space Commission
Space research in Switzerland, as well as in many other European countries, is eminently an international endeavour. Given the infrastructure (and the associated costs) required to carry out this type of research, the need for international collaborations in these matters was seen from the beginning as a necessity rather than a choice. Today, it is regarded by most as a unique opportunity to bring together research teams from across Europe and the world to work jointly on designing unique space missions in order to address a common science question.
Switzerland recognized these opportunities from the beginning and became very active in the negotiations that took place to create the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) in 1962. A little more than a decade later in 1975, when the concept of a single European Space Agency (ESA) regrouping all various European space activities imposed itself, Switzerland was again amongst the ten founding Member States (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom). Today, ESA counts 17 Member States (15 of them are also EU members) and additional countries are negotiating to join the Agency. Finally, in 1986, following a proposal from Switzerland, ESA created its first optional science programme: PRODEX (PROgramme de Développement d’EXpériences scientifiques). This programme allows countries without a space agency on their own to finance space experiments developed by their research institutes and/or universities, directly related to ESA missions or in line with the overall science objectives of the Agency. As the founding State, Switzerland was initially the only member of the programme but was rapidly joined by other countries. Today, the PRODEX programme includes Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and Czech Republic.
PRODEX gave Swiss scientists working at research institutes and universities the financial means to participate fully in the design and construction of space experiments. With the requirement that half of the allocated funds be spent in contracts with industry, PRODEX also brought together the academic and the space industry world of the country. Over the years, this has not only led to very successful hardware developments but also to a tradition of collaboration and exchanges that may otherwise not have taken place at least not to this extent.
The twenty-year commemoration of the creation of the “bridge to experimental space research” as PRODEX is sometimes called, took place in 2007 in form of a Symposium held in St-Gallen and Altenrhein . Looking back was impressive indeed and made clear that Swiss scientists participated in one form or another to many of the most important space missions to date. During these 20 years, a budget of CHF 109 million was allocated to forty-four development projects originating from all over the country and covering a vast area of sciences ranging from astronomy, earth observations, and fundamental physics to biology. Starting in 2008, Switzerland will have an annual budget of around EUR 7.2 million to be used for PRODEX projects. Swiss researchers can use this funding for hardware and software development projects in all disciplines relating to space research.