The European Launcher Development Organisation

The European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the exploration of outer space. It was established in 1975 and headquartered in Paris. One of its two ancestors is the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO). The European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) is a former European space research organization. It was first developed in order to establish a satellite launch vehicle for Europe. The three-stage rocket developed was named Europa, after the mythical Greek god. Overall, there were ten launches that occurred under ELDO’s funding. Initially, the launch site was in Woomera, Australia, but was later moved to the French site Kourou, in French Guiana. The program was created to replace the Blue Streak Missile Program after its cancellation in 1960. In 1974, after an unsuccessful satellite launch, the program was merged with the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) to form the European Space Agency (ESA).

After World War II, many European scientists left Western Europe in order to work with the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Although the 1950s boom made it possible for Western European countries to invest in research and specifically in space-related activities, Western European scientists realised solely national projects would not be able to compete with the two main superpowers. In 1958, only months after the Sputnik shock, Italian Edoardo Amaldi (September 5, 1908 – December 5, 1989) and French Pierre Auger, two prominent members of the Western European scientific community, met to discuss the foundation of a common Western European space agency. They recommended that European governments set up a “purely scientific” joint organisation for space research, taking CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, derived from the name Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) as a model.

Scientists from European countries, the “Groupe d’etudes européen pour la Collaboration dans le domaine des recherches spatiales” (GEERS), with Harrie Massey (May 16, 1908 – November 27, 1983), an Australian mathematical physicist who worked primarily in the fields of atomic and atmospheric physics, as President, and Pierre Auger as Secretary, set up a commission in December 1960 in Meyrin, Switzerland, at which government representatives would decide on possibilities of European cooperation in outer space. European States decided in 1962 to have two different agencies, one to develop a launch system, the European Launch Development Organisation (ELDO) and the other, the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), to develop spacecraft.

The Blue Streak Missile Program

During the early 1950s, the British government had identified the need to develop its own series of ballistic missiles due to advances being made in this field, particularly by the Soviet Union and the United States of America. A British programme to develop such a missile, named Blue Streak, was promptly initiated; however, there were key questions over the then-relatively unknown scenario of what such a vehicle would encounter when attempting re-entry to the atmosphere, there were fears that such a vehicle might simply burn up like a meteor and therefore be unachievable.

The de Havilland Propellers Blue Streak was a British medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), and later the first stage of the Europa satellite launch vehicle. The project was intended to maintain an independent British nuclear deterrent, replacing the V bomber fleet which would become obsolete by 1965. The operational requirement for the missile was issued in 1955 and the design was complete by 1957. During development, it became clear that the missile system was too expensive and too vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. The missile project was cancelled in 1960. Partly to avoid political embarrassment from the cancellation, the British Government proposed that the rocket be used as the first stage of a civilian satellite launcher called Black Prince (a proposed British-led satellite expendable launch system, it would have made heavy use of the preceding Blue Streak missile and the Black Knight test rocket development programmes, as well as some new elements, to produce a British-built launcher capable of deploying medium-sized payloads into orbit). As the cost was thought to be too great for the UK alone international collaboration was sought. This led to the formation of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), with Blue Streak used as the first stage of a carrier rocket named Europa.

The Convention for the Establishment of a European Organisation for the Development and Construction of Space vehicle Launchers

The Convention for the Establishment of a European Organisation for the Development and Construction of Space vehicle Launchers was adopted on March 29, 1962 in London. The States parties to this Convention were “Conscious of the role which space activities were destined to play in the progress of science and technology”, “Desired to harmonise their policies in space matters with a view to common action for peaceful purposes”, and “Have decided to co-operate in the development of space vehicle launchers and to study their scientific and commercial application”.

CHAPTER I concerning THE ORGANISATION, in its Article 1, states that “A European Organisation for the Development and Construction of Space vehicle Launchers is hereby established, and that the seat of the Organisation shall be in Paris”. Article 2 enounces that “The Organisation shall as its aim the development and construction of space vehicle launchers and their equipment suitable for practical applications and for supply to eventual users. The Organisation shall concern itself only with peaceful applications of such launchers and equipment. The results of the work of the Organisation shall be freely accessible to Member States, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention. The Organisation shall seek to promote the co-ordinated development of techniques relevant to its activity in the Member States and shall assist Member States, on request, to make use of the techniques used or developed in the course of its work”.

Article 7 concerning Access to Work of the Organisation says that “Member States which contribute to the cost of a programme of the Organisation shall have the right to designate to the Organisation a limited number of individuals to participate in the work on that programme proceeding in the governmental establishments of other Member States, including the firing trials at Woomera, Australia; to participate in the work on that programme proceeding in non-governmental organisations, subject to the agreement of such organisations; provided in either case that the number and qualifications of such individuals, including their qualifications in the matter of security, and the conditions of such participation are approved by the Government of the Member State within whose jurisdiction such establishments and organisations are located. Such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld”.

CHAPTER IV on PROGRAMMES, in its Article 16 about Initial Programme and Study of Further Programmes, affirms that “The Organisation shall undertake as its initial programme the design, development and construction of a space vehicle launcher using as its first stage the rocket Blue Streak and with a French rocket as its second stage. The design and development of the other parts of the system and of a first series of satellite test vehicles shall be carried out under such arrangements as the Council may decide insofar as no other decisions have been taken as recorded in the Protocol annexed to this Convention. In the initial programme, the development firings of the first stage and of the complete launcher shall be conducted at Woomera, Australia. The development firings of the second and third stages shall be carried out wherever economic and technical conditions are most favourable. When the Organisation conies into existence, it shall continue the study of future possibilities and the need for launchers and ranges. This study shall include experimental research. After a period of two years a report on the study shall be presented to the Council. The Council shall then consider what new programme it would be desirable to undertake and also the orientation of the initial programme, having regard to the progress already obtained and the state of the art. The initial programme shall be financed in accordance with the provisions of the Financial Protocol annexed to this Convention”.

ELDO began work in 1962 and was formally signed into existence in 1964, bringing together Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (with Australia as an associate member). The United Kingdom was to provide the first stage of the launcher (Blue Streak), France the second (Coralie), and Germany the third stage (Astris). Experimental satellites would be developed in Italy and Belgium, telemetry and remote controls in the Netherlands, and launches would take place from Woomera in Australia.

Woomera, South Australia

In common usage, Woomera refers to the RAAF Woomera Range Complex (WRC), a major Australian military and civil aerospace facility and operation located in South Australia, approximately four hundred and fifty kilometres north-west of Adelaide. During the 1950s, the Black Knight rocket (as a component of Blue Streak) was tested at the range. The first rocket launch occurred in 1957, and continued until the last satellite launch in 1971. On March 22, 1949, a first missile was launched. Woomera was Europeanized with the arrival of the Europa rocket in 1964. On June 5 of the same year, the Blue Streak missile, which became the first floor of the European launcher, was successfully tested. Other flights will follow until November 30, 1968, the day that Europe tried for the first time to launch a satellite with a Europa 1 rocket. This launch ended in a failure. Woomera then opened up for cooperation with the United States of America. Further missiles will be fired until the launch complexes’ closing.

The Europa rocket

The “Europa 1” or “ELDO-A” rocket was an early expendable launch system of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), which was the precursor to the European Space Agency (ESA). It was developed with the aim to delivering space access technology, and more specifically to facilitate the deployment of European-wide telecommunication and meteorological satellites into orbit. The Blue Streak missile predated the Europa programme, having originally been developed by Britain primarily for military purposes, however it was cancelled in 1960. Efforts to repurpose the Blue Streak, such as the studied Black Prince expendable launch system, eventually cumulated in the multinational Europa programme. Workshare on the programme was shared between the various members of the ELDO based upon their financial contributions. The Europa launcher itself primarily consisted of the Blue Streak, Coralie, and Astris rocket stages. “Cora” is the name of a single-stage French experimental rocket, which was propelled with nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH. The Cora rocket served for component testing for the planned Europa Rocket, which was eventually built by the European Launcher Development Organisation, the predecessor to the modern European Space Agency. The first two launches of the Cora rocket were made from the Béatrice launch pad in Algeria, and the third and last Cora rocket was launched from Biscarrosse (Landes).

The programme proceeded to perform multiple test launches, however these frequently resulted in partial failures. In addition, Britain decided to pull out of the ELDO organisation, and thus Europa, to instead focus on the rival British Black Arrow launcher instead. This led to the replacement of the Blue Streak by the French-built Diamant section. However, confidence in the programme had diminished due to the poor reliability figures, and this led to its termination. While Europa was ultimately cancelled, the ambition for such a launcher was still present and supported by the majority of ELDO members and, following its reformation into the ESA in 1974, the agency proceeded to develop the Ariane family of launchers, would which prove to be a commercial success with hundreds of launches performed.

Concluding remarks on the European Launcher Development Organisation

Today, among the institutions in the family of science organisations in Europe, the European Space Agency stands out as a shining example that international co-operation in science and technology can work. Building on the lessons learned from ESRO and ELDO, ESA has become an outstandingly successful model of European scientific and technical collaboration. Its contribution to the development of a collective European space capability has been fundamental. The Agency has played an important role not only in space but also in uniting Europe.