An interview with Jacques Blamont

This interview of Jacques Blamont was conducted by Louis de Gouyon Matignon for space legal issues on Thursday, January 31, 2019 in the CNES office of Jacques Blamont in Paris, France.

Hello Jacques Blamont and thank you for receiving me. Could you summarize the birth of the French space program?

Thank you very much. Yes, with pleasure. Basically, it all started with the desire of French President Charles De Gaulle to develop vectors for carrying atomic bombs to Moscow. After the refusal of the United States of America to help France develop its vectors, France decided in August 1959 to work alone. In September 1959 was created the Society of study and realization of ballistic missiles or Société d’étude et de réalisation d’engins balistiques (Sereb), a civilian entity whose objective was the realization of missiles carrying the French atomic weapon (the idea was then to send missiles from French submarines). In 1960, the Sereb discovered that the test gear could put into orbit about fifty kilograms. The Sereb decided to write a note on this subject which arrived on the desk of the French Prime Minister of the time, Michel Debré. He spoke about it to President De Gaulle and in August 1961, France decided that it would launch a satellite and that to do so, an organization would be created.

The National Center for Space Studies or Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) was created and had as primary objective, to develop a maximum of applications exploiting the capacities of the Diamant rocket. On November 26, 1965, the first French satellite, Astérix, was launched by the Diamant-A rocket from the Hammaguir base, the Interarmy Special Vehicles Test Centre or Centre d’essais d’engins spéciaux (CEES), Bechar Province, French Algeria. France became the third world space power. FR-1, second French artificial satellite, was launched on December 6, 1965 by an American rocket Scout from the Vandenberg spaceport. CNES, initially created with modest objectives and few means, decided to become a real agency and set up a series of divisions under my responsibility, in order to understand all aspects of outer space.

Jacques Blamont, could you tell us about the creation of the Guiana Space Centre or Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG)?

I was the technical and scientific director of CNES since 1962. At that time, I was obsessed with the problem of the launch pad. The Evian agreements were to eject from July 1, 1962 France from the Hammaguir base. The Brigitte base, where was launched the first Diamant rocket on November 26, 1965, was located seven hundred kilometres south of Oran, in the Bechar province, in the Algerian Sahara. We were allowed to remain in Hammaguir, with all our prerogatives, until July 1, 1967, which gave us five years. But I thought we had to move. So I decided, six months after the creation of CNES, to look for a new place to establish our launch pad. I suggested French Guiana, knowing that we could not have, after 1967, stayed in Algeria. The French space activity was to develop on a national territory. Today, the Russians continue to use the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and it is a real problem for them; this is one of the reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to create the Vostochny cosmodrome, a Russian launch pad located in the Amur Oblast, in the Russian Far East (south-eastern Siberia) near the small town of Tsiolkovsky. The construction of this new launch pad has been decided to reduce Russia’s dependence on the Baikonur cosmodrome, which has the disadvantage of being in Kazakhstan since the break-up of the Soviet Union. I was not wrong in proposing French Guiana.

Robert Aubinière, a French soldier and aviator, commanded the Bechar base. He had welcomed me during the first Véronique launches. I told him about French Guiana and he went to talk with Georges Pompidou, then Prime Minister. We had permission to settle in Kourou, French Guiana. Fourteen sites had been studied at the time. It was not difficult to convince Georges Pompidou. This decision to install a launch pad in French Guiana changed CNES. The Algerian launch pad was military in nature, and the vectors were developed by Sereb. Based on Pompidou’s decision, CNES was about to acquire a technological status. We then accelerated the various projects and made many launches. Two years later, the French government pursued the Diamant sector and CNES became responsible for all French space activity. CNES has become since a privileged player. Militaries were at the time not interested in satellites and they had to leave Algeria where France had a very large number of people. They also had to transform the French colonial army into a modern army.

Jacques Blamont, why did you choose French Guiana?

French Guiana was a French territory, an essential condition for establishing a launch pad, which excluded certain solutions such as staying in Algeria. In addition, the geographic properties with respect to the opening of the firing angle were very favourable. We could fire from the equator up to ninety degrees. All orbits were possible. There is no other base in the world with this property. We can launch from equatorial angles to polar angles. The second reason was that we were close to the equator and thus, we gained almost thirty to forty percent on the payloads compared to Cape Kennedy and more than that, compared to Russian launches, since Baikonur is forty-five degrees from north latitude. Finally, the third reason was that French Guiana is below the latitude of the intertropical convergence zone: there are never hurricanes there while there are many in Cape Kennedy. We do not have hurricanes in Kourou, we cannot have any.

Among the other sites selected to build our launch pad were locations in the French West Indies and metropolitan France. In metropolitan France, we selected La Grande-Motte, near the Leucate pond, between the departments of Pyrénées-Orientales and Aude. At that time, we were building La Grande-Motte and it was explained to me that it would be a very good site with many possibilities in terms of development. But it was difficult for us to develop a potentially dangerous and delicate activity next to a big city like Montpellier. When I found myself in front of Georges Pompidou, I presented the French Guiana option and the La Grande-Motte option, knowing that the French Guiana option would prevail. Georges Pompidou understood that it would not be possible to shoot in metropolitan France because there would be a risk of significant debris (we thought that the first stage of the rockets could fall in Sicily, Italy) and the metropolitan launch pad only had one launch angle.

Jacques Blamont, could you tell us about the balloon exploration of Venus?

Yes, off course. I was at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), where I was working on a technical instrument, the first instrument to be launched into orbit by France. Tired, I fall asleep and, I dreamed of a bright disc with a very bright point that pulsated, which emitted. I woke up and said to myself: a balloon in the atmosphere of Venus! I therefore proposed to the USSR in 1967 to launch balloons in the atmosphere of Venus, using all the technology of our French program EOLE, an experimental meteorological program developed by CNES in cooperation with NASA, using both a satellite and balloons. The project involved using five hundred supercharged balloons in the Earth’s atmosphere and a satellite that would collect data. These balloons were launched with the United States of America in 1971 to make meteorological measurements where we had no data, mostly over the oceans. However, the USSR did not respond to my Venusian project. I spoke directly to Mstislav Keldych (who played a central role in the Soviet space program through his work in the fields of aerodynamics and space mechanics and was at the heart of all space decisions. His work in the field of applied mathematics were important and he became a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences at the age of 25, in 1946), who gave the project to his secretary.

Three or four years later, we finally started working. The Soviets, however, wanted only one very large, over-inflated balloon with a large payload. I then spoke at a Franco-Soviet meeting to Roald Sagdeev, director of the Space Research Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences (IKI). I talked about Halley’s Comet coming in and told the Soviets that it was an opportunity for the USSR. Sagdeev ignited and began to change the mission of the Venus balloon immediately. All the scientists and professors of astrophysics were requisitioned to work on a mission which would consist of going on Venus then on the comet of Halley. Sagdeev decided to turn the big balloon into two small balloons, which was my initial proposition, like EOLE, a flotilla of little balloons. This decision led to a certain break with CNES, which did not welcome the project. The USSR continued with the idea of ​​two small balloons, and this project worked very well. The two probes of the Vega program launched in 1985 were a great success for the Soviet Union whose program of exploration of the solar system faded at that time. One of the fathers of this mission, an intimate friend, V. M. Linkin, died a few days ago. For me, this mission represents the greatest feat of Soviet astronautics. At the time, I could not place the Venusian project in the American space program, and that’s why I turned to the Soviets. I had great ambitions for Franco-Soviet cooperation, but France did not wish to collaborate further. The Soviets offered us the choice to participate in either a mission on the Moon or a mission in very eccentric orbit. We had chosen the mission in very eccentric orbit, the Roseau project. The events of May 1968, however, incidentally prompted the cessation of the first scientific experiment carried out in Franco-Soviet cooperation.

I wanted to do great things, especially on Mars. Mstislav Keldych had told me in 1976: let’s go to Mars together! But that did not interest the scientific advisers of President Charles De Gaulle. I wanted the Soviet Union to help France become one of the big players in planetary exploration, but it did not work. After the Venus episode, we did not do anything anymore.

Jacques Blamont, what about Mars?

We did not send a Martian balloon since the USSR collapsed. The balloon that was to be sent by CNES to Mars had to be very big, it had to be forty-five meters high. It was very technical, especially because of the lack of Martian atmosphere. The Soviet Union collapsed and everything was cancelled. Speaking of Mars, I remember that I had at the time, in the 1970s, met Wernher von Braun, for whom Mars was the most important goal.

And Clementine?

Clementine, officially called the Deep Space Program Science Experiment (DSPSE), was a joint space project between the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO, previously the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, or SDIO) and NASA. The project was initiated by the Department of Defense (DoD) in order to demonstrate the technology that the BMDO had allowed to develop. Everything was ultra-modern in it. It turned out that I had developed the first image compressor for a Martian mission, the first image compressor to be ever developed; it has since become an indispensable tool for any outer space mission. The image compressor had been developed by French Mécanique Aviation Traction or Matra, a French company covering a wide range of activities mainly related to automobiles, bicycles, aeronautics and weaponry. This instrument could multiply by fifteen the rate of transmittable bits. In order to demonstrate American’s advanced work, Clementine was sent into orbit for two months around the Moon and did an amazing work in digitally mapping our natural satellite. The only Lunar map that was available in the 1990s was the result of analogical pictures taken by the Apollo missions. Clementine, after two months, was reorbited towards an asteroid to take pictures of it.

I remember attending in Washington, D.C., a Committee on Space Research (COSPAR)’s General Assembly. It was in the beginning of the 1990s. Walking in a hallway, I met a friend of mine, a well-known history professor at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). He was surrounded by a gang of young people. He told me those young people were working for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and then asked me: would you enjoy watching what we do? I said yes and found myself in the Pentagon, in the highly classified part. A military was discussing in detail project Clementine. I asked him: wouldn’t it increase your mission’s value if you had an image compressor? He answered me: why do you think you’re here for? I was impressed. And naturally, I helped them. Working for CNES, this cooperation project was done quite secretly. It worked very well, it was an absolute success: we received two million excellent numerical images. I then convinced CNES to use image compressors in as much missions as possible. It worked very well too on SPOT or Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre, a commercial high-resolution optical imaging Earth observation satellite system operating from outer space.

Jacques Blamont, what is outer space’s future?

Space is going through a period of revolution, with a lot of new actors like China, who wants to become the first space power, and also what is called the “New Space”. This concerns American billionaires who have been immersed in the Star Trek culture and who are now investing heavily in space technologies. These people arrive with colossal capital. They have a huge impact on the evolution of space, especially SpaceX, which has become the world’s number one with the Falcon 9 launcher. We are in a transition period, and I think we are still in the fog. Space is becoming more democratic, that’s what I called “The crowd seized space”. The future cannot do without space.

Thank you very much Jacques Blamont.