An interview with Jean-Pierre Sanfourche

This interview of Jean-Pierre Sanfourche was conducted by Louis de Gouyon Matignon for space legal issues on Friday, March 8, 2019 in the Association Aéronautique et Astronautique de France (3AF) office of Jean-Pierre Sanfourche in Paris, France.

Hello Jean-Pierre Sanfourche and thank you for receiving me. Could you present yourself?

Hello and thank you very much. Yes, with pleasure. Well, I am Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, I entered the École militaire de l’air (Air Force Military School) in 1954, a military school training officers of the French Air Force in Salon-de-Provence, a commune located about forty kilometres from Marseille in the Bouches-du-Rhône department in southern France. I was then an officer trainee specialized in mechanics. I did sixteen years in the French Air Force and in 1969, I entered as an officer on secondment at the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, the capital of the French department of Haute-Garonne and of the region of Occitanie.

In 1976, I left CNES to join the European Space Agency (ESA) where I stayed until 1981. I, Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, was the project leader of the first payload on Spacelab, a reusable laboratory used on certain spaceflights flown by the Space Shuttle. The laboratory comprised multiple components, including a pressurized module, an unpressurized carrier and other related hardware housed in the Shuttle’s cargo bay. The components were arranged in various configurations to meet the needs of each spaceflight. Spacelab components flew on a total of thirty-two Shuttle missions. Spacelab allowed scientists to perform experiments in microgravity in low Earth orbit. There was a variety of Spacelab-associated hardware, so a distinction can be made between the major Spacelab program missions with European scientists running missions in the Spacelab habitable module, missions running other Spacelab hardware experiments, and other STS missions that used some component of Spacelab hardware. At that time, I was working in coordination with Dr. Ulf Dietrich Merbold, the first West German citizen and second German native to have flown in outer space. He is the first member of the European Space Agency Astronaut Corps to participate in a spaceflight mission and the first non-U.S. citizen to reach orbit in a U.S. spacecraft. In 1983, he and Byron Lichtenberg became the first Payload Specialists to fly on the shuttle.

In 1981, I also started a third career working for the private sector and the French company Sodern, a company based near Paris specialized in space instrumentation, optics and neutron analysers (its shareholders are ArianeGroup and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission). This company is today the leader in the production of very accurate stellar viewfinders. Since my retirement in 1995, I have kept working in the aeronautical and space affairs as a project manager for the Association Aéronautique et Astronautique de France (3AF) in Paris. The Association Aéronautique et Astronautique de France (3AF) organizes six symposia every year on subjects such as greener aviation, future transport systems, etc. We work through symposiums and we also have some twenty specialized commissions. We have commissions that work very well, such as “applied aerodynamics” or “structures and mechanisms”. We try to cover all areas. These symposia bring together around three hundred people each time. We are in close contact with Europe since we are members of the Council of European Aerospace Societies (CEAS), which is the confederation of the European aeronautical and astronautical associations. In addition, I am also editor-in-chief of the European journal CEAS Space Journal, which is the quarterly journal of the Council of European Aerospace Societies (CEAS).

I, Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, need to mention that if I entered as an officer on secondment at the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) in Toulouse, it was because I had the opportunity while I was still an active officer in the French Air Force to write a thesis with Professor Jacques Blamont, who is at the origin of the French space program.

Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, could you tell us about the history of scientific research using atmospheric balloons?

With regard to scientific ballooning in France, we owe everything to two personalities: Professor Jacques Blamont and Professor Audouin Dollfus. Audouin Charles Dollfus (November 12, 1924 – October 1, 2010) was a French astronomer and aeronaut, specialist in studies of the Solar System and discoverer in 1966 of Janus, a moon of Saturn. A pioneer of space exploration, he flew numerous telescope balloon flights, the most spectacular being that which, in April 1959, allowed him to climb to an altitude of fourteen kilometres aboard a sealed waterproof capsule and make observations that allowed him to deduce the presence of water on Mars. Professor Jacques Blamont is also a very important personality. In 1958, as a young Doctor from the École normale supérieure in Paris, Jacques Blamont went to the United States of America where he learned about scientific ballooning. He then came back to France and, thanks to him, since 1961, CNES has launched many stratospheric balloons for research at very high altitudes (around forty kilometres above sea level). For a long time, these balloons have been launched from Aire-sur-l’Adour, a commune in the Landes department in Nouvelle-Aquitaine in southwestern France. Currently, since it is no longer possible for safety reasons to launch from Aire-sur-l’Adour, CNES launches from Canada and Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, situated in the province of Lapland where the Esrange Space Center was established in the 1960s. Scientific ballooning is still an activity today, it is a complementary activity.

Most of the stratospheric balloon activities were oriented towards the physics of the atmosphere, to astrophysics too, but especially the physics of the very upper atmosphere. Researches on the magnetic and electrical environment of the Earth were also made. I, for my part, have worked on a stabilized nacelle. It is a nacelle that has been used a lot by the Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Marseille (LAM). The goal was astrophysical research. Scientific ballooning is still used and CNES continues to launch stratospheric balloons (especially to study meteorology and the physics of the very upper atmosphere).

Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, what about Jacques Blamont?

I, Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, should add that Professor Jacques Blamont was one of the leaders of the Vega program. The Vega program was a series of Venus missions that also took advantage of the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1986. Vega 1 and Vega 2 were unmanned spacecraft launched in a cooperative effort among the Soviet Union (who also provided the spacecraft and launch vehicle) and Austria, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Federal Republic of Germany in December 1984. They had a two-part mission to investigate Venus and also flyby Halley’s Comet.

Vega was an extremely ambitious operation of Professor Jacques Blamont: the project was to send scientific balloons into the atmosphere of Venus. And it worked. It was a time when CNES had relations with the scientists of the U.S.S.R. and could think of big projects. The project had benefited from the will of Charles De Gaulle to cooperate with Moscow. In June 1966, General De Gaulle’s policy of national independence led France to begin a space cooperation with the Soviet Union to cross the Iron Curtain of the Cold War. The agreement signed at the time had been accepted by France following important concessions from the U.S.S.R. which wanted a more political partnership with France to get closer to Europe. On March 17, 1966, Andrei Grymko presented to the French Embassy in Moscow a draft agreement and a much more ambitious and convincing draft protocol for France, including the sending of a French circumlunar satellite. Scientific projects that were effectively cancelled following the events of May 1968. On June 30, 1966, the Agreement for Cooperation for the Peaceful Exploration of Space was signed, which included a Russian satellite for colour television broadcasts, a meteorological satellite and the creation of a ten-year Great Commission for science. Then began a common spatial epic that the presidents of CNES have developed over the years. A cooperation that the United States of America could not offer at the time because of too intense competition and launches too few, while Europe failed in the commissioning of a launcher Europa. Also, Professor Jacques Blamont has worked a lot with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally funded research and development centre and NASA field centre in California.

Jean-Pierre Sanfourche, what do you think is the biggest success of the French space industry?

I, Mr. Sanfourche, believe it is the mastering space launchers and especially the entire Ariane sector, including Ariane V, which recently celebrated its 100th successful flight in a row. France’s success is not about science but technology. It’s a huge step forward. Ariane is the successor of Diamant. Thanks to the Astérix satellite, France acquired a mastery of these technologies that allowed it in December 1979 to launch the first Ariane 1. It all started with General De Gaulle and the need for strategic launchers. The Société d’étude et de réalisation d’engins balistiques (Sereb) was created in 1959 initially to develop two-stage ballistic missiles for nuclear weapons. It was located in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, a commune in the Gironde department in Nouvelle-Aquitaine in southwestern France. We then controlled the use of rockets, thanks to researches led by the French military. Today, the French military still uses the M51 SLBM, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, built by ArianeGroup, and deployed in 2010 with the French Navy. Each missile carries six to ten independently targetable TN 75 thermonuclear warheads. The three-stage engine of the M51 is directly derived from the solid propellant boosters of Ariane 5. France truly masters propulsion.

Mr. Sanfourche, how do you see the future of aeronautics and astronautics?

Maybe very high altitude tourism with stratospheric balloons, or initiatives in the Stratobus style. I also think that the Zeppelin will come back as a means of transport, it will be done in the years to come. A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship named after the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who pioneered rigid airship development at the beginning of the twentieth century. Zeppelin’s notions were first formulated in 1874 and developed in detail in 1893. They were patented in Germany in 1895 and in the United States of America in 1899. After the outstanding success of the Zeppelin design, the word zeppelin came to be commonly used to refer to all rigid airships. Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910. The defeat of Germany in 1918 temporarily slowed down the airship business. The Hindenburg disaster in 1937, along with political and economic issues, hastened the demise of the Zeppelins. What happened with the Zeppelins is a bit like what happened with the Concorde, a British-French turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that was operated from 1976 until 2003. It is such a disaster and a tragedy that for decades, we talk about anything but that. Zeppelins, as is Concorde now, were a taboo subject.

Now, given the progress of technology, we know how to make Zeppelins that will not take fire. I am sure it will come back for mass transport. We will have steerable carriers with a navigation system. It would be a commercial transporter, like the cargo ships and the big transport planes: it costs less and it is perfect from an environmental point of view. About the Concorde, I don’t believe the turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner will reappear soon, and this is because of environmental reasons: it requires engines of such power that it exceeds the standards allowed in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. However, there are projects, including in Japan, on business jets travelling at a speed of Mach 1.4 (and not Mach 2, like the Concorde). There are also very advanced projects in the United States of America led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): one of them is called the NASA Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration, also known as the Shaped Sonic Boom Experiment. I believe there will soon be business jets travelling at a speed of Mach 1.4.

To synthesize, in the field of aeronautics, by 2050, we foresaw a more and more efficient transport aviation, especially from an environmental point of view. The European Commission is leading a large number of research actions to reduce the polluting effects of air transport. The planes will evolve but we will still have mass transport like today. The speed will always be Mach 0.8. Today, aeronautics favours comfort, environmental constraints, reliability and safety: reducing the likelihood of engine failures (safety) / security vis-à-vis terrorist actions (security). We are in the middle of the Digital Revolution and there are novelties every year. We cannot reason today as we reasoned in 1979 for example, at the time of linear progress. Today, with the exponential growth of technological advances, it’s very difficult to guess but I believe the revolution will take place when we’ll use Digital Revolution applications on aircrafts. As for the end of the pilots, some people believe in it but I do not believe it. Maybe everything will be autopilot but there will always be, I think, a pilot on board to catch the hand just in case. There will also be pilots on the ground.

As for space, it’s huge. There is the use of space for purposes of research on the knowledge of the universe, knowledge of planets, galaxies and celestial bodies outside the Solar System: it has no limit. We are making considerable progress and it will continue. On manned flights, I do not know what will become of the ISS, it should be stopped around 2024. Among the projects that point to the horizon, it is the return of human beings on the Moon. The probability is high to see in the coming ten to fifteen years teams go on the Moon and come back. The trip is short, only three days! You can do huge things from the Moon. Personally, as far as Mars is concerned, I do not see things clearly (because of the current propulsion means). I believe there is more to do with optical observation means. Terrestrial applications using outer space are immeasurable. Everything will depend on outer space, we are only at the beginning of the use of space for terrestrial purposes. In the field of Earth observation, as far as the environment is concerned, today fifty-five percent of the chemical elements that enter into these climate change problems can be measured only by space means, by satellites. Conducting environmental researches and projects without space is not an option.

Everything in the future will depend on space applications, and nobody knows it. It’s quite curious, by the way. There is a lack of information from the French population about how space activities help us on Earth. I believe it’s our fault, because we do not send human beings in outer space. No French citizen has yet taken a lift to outer space from the Guiana Space Centre using an Ariane launcher. Human spaceflight programs are symbolical. This was understood by those who wanted to launch Hermes, a proposed spaceplane designed by the French CNES in 1975, and later by the ESA. It was superficially similar to the American Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar and the larger Space Shuttle. The project was subject to numerous delays and funding issues. In 1992, Hermes was cancelled, in part due to unachievable cost and performance goals, as well as the formation of a partnership with the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, which reduced the demand for an independent manned spaceplane. As a result, no Hermes shuttles were ever built. I think it’s a mistake to have abandoned the Hermes project.

Mr. Sanfourche, what about telecommunications?

Let’s also mention telecommunications. Let’s mention the Symphonie satellites, the first communications satellites built by France and Germany (and the first to use three-axis stabilization in geostationary orbit with a bipropellant propulsion system) to provide geostationary orbit injection and station-keeping during their operational lifetime. Since then, France has always been at the forefront of space telecommunications. Finally, there is the Moon village project which, I think, will only be done at a global level. This is one of the advantages of space: we come to international, global collaboration. This is a wonderful example of a project where we can bring together countries with a common goal, a common ambition. The visionaries speak of a Republic of the Moon!

Thank you very much Jean-Pierre Sanfourche.