History of the French Hermes spaceplane

For this new space law article, let us have a look at the French Hermes spaceplane. In Greek mythology, Hermes is a deity of Olympus. His main mission is to be the messenger of the Gods. The name Hermes was surely chosen in reference to this function, the French spaceplane representing a bridge between Earth and the rest of space.

This project was part of an endless human dream: reaching for the stars and beyond. It all began in the 1980’s when the United States of America and the Soviet Union were the only two leaders in the space race. Major steps had already been taken through the Vostok mission, which send the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into outer space and through the Apollo program, which send the first humans on the Moon. During the 1970s and 1980s, the race for space conquest slowed down and stabilised itself as the technologies were getting safer. However there were still only two great powers participating in this race.

Europeans decided to enter the market by launching the Ariane space program in 1973, in order for Europe to be more independent from space powers, therefore from the United States of America or the Soviet Union. Yet, the aim of the Ariane space program was, and still is, to be able to put satellites into orbit. No manned flight was planned. This is why in parallel to the development of the Ariane launcher, another program started to appear: the Hermes spaceplane.

The roots of the program first developed themselves in French minds. At the beginning, it was solely a French project: the National Centre for Space Studies, or CNES, proposed in 1975 a spaceplane design. Despite the French roots, the program has grown into a European program. As the costs kept increasing, France understood that it would need the help of its European partners in order to carry out this project. The project was therefore designed as a spaceplane that would provide an independent access to space for Europe, thus allowing the old continent to enter the space conquest. More than that, it was about ensuring “human access” to space.

Starting as a small spaceplane, the project soon evolved, by 1984, into a small mini space shuttle capable of carrying four to six people to outer space, in addition with a five tons payload. The human mind has always had the delusions of grandeur, and that is why it has sinned in this project. The desire to send more and more passengers and cargo into space, and the desire, in fine, to arrive first in the race, started a vicious circle.

Indeed, as explained above, the small spaceplane evolved into a space shuttle capable of carrying several people as well as a significant cargo. When the project was designed, the goal was to use the Ariane launch vehicle to launch the French Hermes spaceplane, thus ensuring a full European program. Nonetheless, the project designers realised that the Hermes mini space shuttle was too heavy for the existing Ariane launch vehicle. It was decided to upgrade the Ariane launch vehicle so as to support the European space shuttle.

However, by 1986, the estimated costs of the French Hermes spaceplane had grown exponentially, up to one and a half billion dollars. But the costs did not stop at the sole design of the Hermes space shuttle: the amount of the adaptation of the Ariane launcher reached the sum of 2 billion dollars. The year 1986 brought more bad news: in addition to the concerns related to the increase in costs, which did not seem to stabilise, there was the Challenger disaster. The Challenger disaster refers to the explosion of the NASA space shuttle, called Challenger, in January 1986. The explosion occurred only seventy-three seconds after liftoff and claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard of the space shuttle. This disaster was caused by two rubber O-rings, which sealed the joints of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, which had failed due to the cold temperatures on the morning of the launch. This tragedy truly impacted the NASA space program but also had many consequences on the space programs of other countries and thus on the Hermes spacecraft project. One of the major consequences was the strengthening of safety standards. This tragedy made the industry, as well as the people, realise the gravity of the consequences if a security measure is not respected.

Consequently, adaptations were made on the Hermes spaceplane project in order to answer these safety questions. Thus, instead of taking six astronauts, the European space shuttle would only carry three astronauts. The payload mass was also reduced from five tons to three tons. Moreover, the Ariane launcher had, again, to be upgraded as the spaceplane was getting heavier. This again generated many additional development costs.

The cost of the project increased so much that, at the beginning of the 1990’s, it eventually reached the estimated sum of four and a half billion dollars. Although the project was European, it was mainly funded by three countries: France, which provided forty per cent of the funding, Germany and Italy. But the Germans have often expressed reservations about this project. Indeed, they often wanted to leave the program, mainly because of safety concerns and growing costs, but due to their own space program, they needed the Hermes space shuttle.

Difficulties started to emerge in the 1990’s. First, mergers were announced in order, perhaps, to centralise the conception, the costs, among a lot of factors. The ESA and CNES teams formed only one team as well as the four main industrial contractors which formed the “Euro Hermespace” management company. Despite the numerous efforts made to sustain the project, the costs kept growing and growing, reaching the staggering sum of six billion dollars. The project took on huge proportions, quickly becoming out of control. The viability of the project was starting to weaken. Actions needed to be taken.

The Hermes spaceplane project shows us two things: how an idea can become a concrete and feasible project when European cooperation is successful but also, how a project can be nullified from the moment when the European cooperation begins to no longer work, when countries can’t exchange anymore. Several times, meetings were organised in order to decide on the future of the project and to lay down the future guidelines to follow. But the countries participating in the project failed to reach to an agreement and the project was postponed.

What started in the 1980’s as a European space shuttle that could take up to six people into outer space has been reduced to a technology demonstration, with no man onboard, called the “Hermes X-2000” project. Its cost was reduced to two billion dollars. With the aim in mind of reducing costs as much as possible, cooperation with Russia has even been taken into consideration. But the pitfall of such a cooperation is the non-negligible decrease of the independence the project was supposed to give to Europe. The idea was, for Europe, to be able to have an independent way to access space, without relying on the United States of America, nor the Soviet Union, and be part of the great space power.

But then again, in 1992, the Hermes X-2000 project was downsized, its cost went from two billion dollars to four hundred and five millions dollars. Despite all the efforts made to save the project, it was in the end abandoned as it was judged too pricey and too uncertain. Unlike the United States of America, France does not have an individual vision of space. The country has allied with European countries but also with the international scene in order to be able to develop a cooperation as well as an international program of development and conquest of space. The failure of this project allowed us to learn a lesson: unity is strength.