France in space: independence and cooperation

At the head of the third world space budget, France equipped itself in September with a military space command. Apart from manned flight, the hexagon is present in all areas: commercial launches, science, observation, telecommunications and defense.

With a budget of two and a half billion American dollars in 2019, France has the third largest budget in the world in terms of space program, far behind the United States of America (more than forty billion dollars including NASA and the budget of defense), and China (about seven billion). Born from the will of General De Gaulle in the early 1960s, the CNES (National Center for Space Studies) invests half of its credits in the European Space Agency (ESA), and collaborates with all the space powers of the planet in five main areas: launchers with the Ariane rocket, science (exploration of Mars, the Moon, the International Space Station), Earth observation, satellites and defense.

From V2 to Véronique: the birth of a French rocket

In the aftermath of the Second World War, we are not yet talking about a space program, but more about rockets; in 1945, we understand that the conditions are ripe to develop one day space travel. The appearance of V2, nuclear energy and radar are hopeful that the space adventure will soon be a reality”.

In France, as in the U.S.S.R. and in the United States of America, the efforts focus first on the study of the V2, the rocket developed by the Nazi regime at the end of the war to bomb the Allies (London and Antwerp mainly). The chemist Henri Moureu works in a laboratory in Paris when called to the site of an impact, where he understands that this is a new revolutionary machine “At the end of the war, however, the researcher struggles to convince the authorities to invest in this project, and only the Army gives him credits”. But funding is limited because France is engaged in the reconstruction of the country, and the Indochina war; the army decided in 1949 to form a team of technological watch in order not to lose this know-how: it is the birth of the Véronique program.

If the investment is not enough to develop a weapon, the salvation comes from a handful of scientists who see the opportunity to study the upper atmosphere, then called “the aerial ocean”. Henri Moureu and the geophysicist Étienne Vassy join the CASDN (National Defense Scientific Action Committee), a military organisation (created in 1948) to promote cooperation between scientists and the military. These visionary soldiers of the CASDN support the exploration program of the upper atmosphere and small rocket Véronique. The first scientific launch of the latter took place on October 29, 1954; it is a success, and France also owes it partly to the Germans employed at the end of the war.

In all, more than a hundred German engineers and technicians worked for French research, mainly in Vernon, near Paris, at the aeronautical ballistic research laboratory. Among them, Karl-Heinz Bringer, who worked in Peenemünde alongside Wernher von Braun, father of the V2 and the Apollo program, and who designed the propulsion system of Véronique. Wolfgang Pilz, brilliant technician, also developed the guidance system of Véronique before serving Nasser to destroy Israel, and return to Europe to avoid being assassinated by the Mossad”.

But business really took off only after 1956, when the government of Guy Mollet gives credits for France to be present during the International Geophysical Year, the IGY, between 1957 and 1958. Launched by British and American physicists, this meeting aimed in particular to better understand the interactions between the Sun and the upper Earth’s atmosphere. It is in this context that the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. On the French side, however, nothing is ready because of the lack of funding. It is only in March 1959 that Véronique AGI (one of the rockets of the program) succeeds two launches with a spectacular discovery: the existence of the turbopause (by the team of Professor Jacques Blamont). The rocket, however, is not powerful enough to launch into orbit, but reaches two hundred kilometres.

In the wake of the U.S.S.R. and the United States of America

The first French satellite in space, Astérix, was launched by a Diamant A rocket on November 26, 1965, from the Hammaguir base in Algeria. When Charles De Gaulle returned to power in 1958, he believed that France must equip itself with ballistic missiles for the nuclear strike force; he hesitates a time between the manufacture of a national missile, and the purchase of a U.S. rocket under license. He finally decided in favour of autonomy, and created the Society for Study and Ballistic Research (SEREB) in September 1959, under military domination. In 1960, SEREB convinced that it could also develop a satellite launcher — Diamant — from its ballistic studies. In December 1961, the political authorities agreed to support the Diamant project, and the setting up of a space agency, CNES (National Center for Space Studies), following the CRS (Center for Space Research) created in January 1959 (to coordinate the first space activities). A few weeks before the re-election of Charles De Gaulle in December 1965, France achieved its first satellite launch, and thus became the third country to arrive autonomously after the U.S.S.R. and the United States of America. Astérix is ​​put into orbit after being launched from the Algerian base of Hammaguir.

Until 1967, most French launches are from Algeria in the Sahara Desert. The earliest rocket technology experiments took place in metropolitan France, at Mailly-le-Camp, a commune in the Aube department in north-central France, at the centre d’essais en vol de Brétigny-sur-Orge, or at the Île du Levant (sometimes referred to as Le Levant), a French island in the Mediterranean off the coast of the Riviera, near Toulon. But soon, the rocket range required to find uninhabited areas, to avoid risks in the event of an accident at launch. Created in 1947 to experiment all kinds of rocket engines, the Joint Space Test Center (CIEES) moved to Béchar, oasis that has several advantages including a railway linking it to Oran (Algeria, Africa). However, to launch powerful engines like Véronique, the site of Hammaguir, one hundred and twenty kilometres further south of Béchar, is retained. In the early 1960s, SEREB comes to test its first missiles. After the independence of Algeria in 1962, the Algerian authorities proposed to French authorities to rent the site — as Baikonur later will be to Russia by Kazakhstan — but Paris prefers to leave in July 1967, at the latest. While Biscarosse is selected for military trials, Kourou in French Guiana is chosen by the CNES; an area with few inhabitants and close to the equator, which facilitates launching (the centrifugal force created by the rotation of the Earth is the strongest in this location).

The Diamant 1 rocket was built by SEREB soldiers, but the new, more powerful version (Diamant B), is entrusted to CNES. The goal is to build a commercial launcher to put satellites in orbit, but France cannot afford to do it alone, and joins forces with the British and Germans to build the Europa rocket. But the project is a failure. Four launches (full launcher) and four failures attributable mainly to the fact that there was no main contractor; each country built part of the rocket without sufficient consultation. CNES then proposed to coordinate the following project, Ariane, whose launch is a success on December 24, 1979.

Apart from autonomous manned flight, France in space has a presence in all areas

Subsequently, Ariane became the world leader in the launch of satellites, and France developed its space program in all areas, except autonomous maned flight. The Ariane 5 rocket could have become the instrument of this quest: far more powerful than Ariane 4, the new launcher was designed to orbit heavy loads, because it also had to be able to carry the European spaceplane Hermes, which has never born. Supported by French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, this spaceplane project remained in the cards, because of the prohibitive cost. “When Germany withdrew, it was clear that Hermes would never fly. On the other hand, manned flight pays nothing, unlike commercial launches; it requires a political will, which has never been sufficient”.

Today, France sends its astronauts via Russia or the United States of America, who accept to take foreigners because the hexagon finances international programs. “We are associated with the International Space Station (ISS)”.

If Thomas Pesquet goes into outer space, it is because France provides laboratories and cargo ships to the ISS. In exchange, we have flights of astronauts. In the discussions that exist today for the return to the Moon, Europe will be involved, and therefore, France will play a role. Humans will walk on the Moon from 2025, there will be Europeans and therefore French spationauts”.

In addition to manned flight, France is present in space in the field of defense: “The family of satellites Helios has been in orbit since 1995, to observe the Earth, completed since the end of 2018 with the new generation CSO-1 satellite”. Secure telecommunication satellites have also been launched (Syracuse), or are about to be launched (CERES in 2020), and will be complemented by new systems announced by the Minister of Armies, Florence Parly, in July 2019. France will invest more than seven hundred million American dollars in the military space by 2025, to reinforce its means of surveillance, and to equip itself with in-orbit self-defense capabilities. A sum that adds to the more than three and a half billion American dollars already provided for France’s defense in outer space.

In the European context, France contributes with almost one and a half billion American dollars to the budget of ESA. The European Space Agency has twenty-two members, and France is the largest contributor. “This represents half of CNES’s budget, the second largest contributor is Germany, which pays almost nine hundred million American dollars”. It is to be noted that if we report France’s space budget to France’s population, France is the second largest space contributor in the world, with almost forty American dollars per year and per inhabitant, behind the United States of America, with fifty American dollars per year and per inhabitant. Outside Europe, France is the country with the most international cooperation.

The United States of America is France’s first partner, with projects in oceanography (Jason satellites), on Mars (Curiosity, InSight, Mars 2020). France also work with the Indians in the monitoring of the climate (SARAL, ALtiKa, and Megha-Tropiques), with China (CFOSAT, a satellite to observe wind and waves, participation in the future lunar mission Chang’e 6, where France will provide twenty-five kilograms of scientific experiments), with Japan (Martian Moons Exploration, a rover that will go on the moons of Mars in 2024), and Russia (Soyuz is also launched from Kourou). And France is also working with all the newcomers, such as Mexico, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Indonesia… France provides satellite experiments, and those countries provide satellite launches, it is a win-win cooperation.