The birth of the French space program

The French space program started with the creation of CNES. The National Center for Space Studies or Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES), the most important national space agency in the European Union, is a public institution of an industrial and commercial nature responsible for developing, proposing and implementing the French space program. CNES has a budget of approximatively two and a half billion euros per year, which remains the largest in Europe. It includes the share donated to the European Space Agency (ESA), of which CNES is the largest contributor. CNES is under the joint supervision of the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation and the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. CNES was created at the initiative of President Charles De Gaulle on December 19, 1961 to provide a structure to coordinate and animate French’s space activities.

Space travel has long been a significant ambition in French culture. From the Gobelins’ 1664 tapestry representing a space rocket, to Jules Verne’s 1865 novel De la Terre à la Lune and George Méliès’ 1902 movie Le Voyage dans la Lune, space and rocketry were present in French society long before the technological means appeared to allow the development of a space exploration program. During the late eighteenth century, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (March 30, 1754 – June 15, 1785), Jacques Charles (November 12, 1746 – April 7, 1823) and the Montgolfier brothers – Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (August 26, 1740 – June 26, 1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (January 6, 1745 – August 2, 1799) – are seen as worldwide precursors and explorers of aeronautics, with the world record altitude then reached by a human at seven thousand meters performed by Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac (December 6, 1778 – May 9, 1850) in 1804. Those names, their numerous students and their works will mark the early expertise of France’s space program in all types of air balloons since.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the origins of the French space program are tied to French technological developments in aerospace and astronautics, notably the nascent airplane and rocket industries. Robert Esnault-Pelterie (November 8, 1881 – December 6, 1957) appears as one of the early pioneers in space exploration design and rocket science. From 1908, he studied propulsion and space flight; without knowing the work of Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (September 17, 1857 – September 19, 1935) at that time, he derived the mathematical equations for interplanetary flight, flight durations, and engine propulsion, and was later nominated President of the Trade association of Aircraft industries (Chambre Syndicale des Industries Aéronautiques) in 1912. From 1935 to 1939 he designed a high-altitude sounding rocket, but World War II interrupted his plans.

At the end of the Second World War, the Allies were interested in the work done by the Germans on rockets. President Charles De Gaulle did not wish to leave to the USSR and the United States of America the monopoly of the techniques allowing to reach satellisation (placing satellites on orbit). Until then, French researches in the field of rocket engines had been conducted in a military framework from technologies more or less derived from the German experiences of V2 missiles. Each country had endeavoured to collect as much technical information as possible on V2 ballistic missiles. To lead a serious French space program, a coordination and animation body was missing. It was created on December 19, 1961 in the form of a public institution called the National Center for Space Studies or Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES). Two years later, the decision was taken to build a space centre in Toulouse, and on April 14, 1964, the construction of a space centre in Kourou (French Guiana) began.

The Law No. 61-1382 of December 19, 1961 establishing a National Center for Space Studies, states in its Article 1 that “Under the name National Center for Space Studies is established a public scientific and technical institution, of an industrial and commercial character, endowed with financial autonomy and placed under the authority of the Prime Minister”. Article 2 enounces that “The mission of the National Center for Space Studies is to develop and guide the scientific and technical research pursued in the field of space research. It has to: 1. Collect all information on national and international activities concerning the problems of outer space, its exploration and use; 2. Prepare and propose for the approval of the interministerial committee for scientific and technical research, research programs of national interest in this field; 3. Ensure the execution of such programs, either in the laboratories and technical establishments created by it, or by means of research agreements concluded with other public or private bodies, or by financial participations; 4. Follow, in liaison with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the problems of international co-operation in the field of outer space and to ensure the execution of the international programs entrusted to France; 5. Provide, either directly or through subscriptions or grants, the publication of scientific works concerning the problems of outer space”. Article 6 affirms that “The National Center for Space Studies will submit to the Parliament each year, before the vote of the budget, a report on its activity and the results obtained during the past year”.

CNES’s first mission was to place France in the club of space superpowers alongside USSR and the United States of America. CNES started its activity and focused its efforts in three ways: the preparation of the Diamant launcher from ballistic equipment experienced in recent years, the manufacture (with the French industry) of small scientific satellites of the D-1 family (Diadème and Diapason), and the acquisition of more sophisticated skills through cooperation with NASA to train engineers and build a scientific satellite (FR-1, second French artificial satellite launched on December 6, 1965 by an American rocket Scout from the Vandenberg spaceport). From 1961 to 1981, CNES is going to be the driving force of European space activities. During these years, the necessary structures for a space program (centres of operations, laboratories…) are going to be put in place. As part of the French national research and technology effort, a competent and dynamic space industry is going to emerge in Paris, Toulouse and Kourou (French Guiana). Other European States are going to have strong reluctance to engage. In the 1980s, the European Space Agency (ESA) which CNES helped to create and which it equipped with the Ariane rocket, is going to become a large agency and many international programs are going to be entrusted to it. CNES today represents France at ESA and is successfully reframing its activities on an ambitious national application-oriented program.

The Laboratoire de recherches balistiques et aérodynamiques (LRBA)

The Ballistic and Aerodynamic Research Laboratory or Laboratoire de recherches balistiques et aérodynamiques (LRBA) was created soon after the end of the Second World War, on May 17, 1946 in Vernon, a commune in the department of Eure in the Normandy region in northern France. Commissioned to develop what later became the Véronique rocket probe, LRBA brought together one hundred and fifty German V2 ballistic missile specialists that had been hired by the French army. The objective was double: on the one hand, allowing French researchers and French industries to acquire knowledge in the fields of rocket propulsion and guidance, and on the other hand, to develop new gear extrapolated from the German achievements. In the city of Madeleine or Buschdorf, built on a military field far from any city (in order to avoid contact with the population), more than a hundred German specialists from Peenemünde settled and began working on rockets and missiles designed to counter the threat of long-range Soviet bombers. Among these specialists were Karl-Heinz Bringer, inventor of Ariane’s Viking rocket engines, Helmut Habermann, who has worked with Wernher von Braun, Wolfgang Pilz, a propulsion specialist, and Otto Müller, a guidance specialist.

In the early 1950s, fuel improvement tests for the future Véronique rocket were carried out, sometimes leading to incidents. In the late 1950s, the LRBA will lost the majority of its German specialists. On March 9, 1963, new facilities were inaugurated. On November 26, 1965, the first French satellite, Astérix, was launched by the Diamant-A rocket from the Hammaguir base, Bechar Province, French Algeria. France became the third world space power.

The Société d’étude et de réalisation d’engins balistiques (Sereb)

The Society of study and realization of ballistic missiles or Société d’étude et de réalisation d’engins balistiques (Sereb) was created in 1959. This entity is closely related to the history of France’s military nuclear program. At its beginning, it aimed at developing missiles capable of carrying the French atomic weapon. President Charles De Gaulle wanted a completely independent nuclear strike force, using vectors placed on submarines. As a result, Sereb established the programs of Basic Ballistic Studies known as Precious Stones and developed many vectors (any aeronautical or astronautical vehicle capable of carrying a weapon for launching on a target). Between 1961 and 1965, all the necessary knowledge for the realization of long-range missiles as well as satellite launchers were methodically acquired. Several rockets were designed: Aigle and Agate, Topaze, Émeraude, Saphir and Rubis.

The Véronique rocket

Véronique is a French liquid-fuelled sounding rocket (sometimes called a research rocket, a sounding rocket is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its sub-orbital flight) that was partly developed by German scientists who had worked in Peenemünde. Forty-eight Véronique rockets will be launched between 1959 and 1969 with a success rate of eighty percent. In addition to experiments on the upper atmosphere, the Véronique rockets are going to be used several times to study the effects of acceleration and vibrations on living beings (rats, cats and monkeys). On March 24, 1967, a Véronique rocket reached the altitude of three hundred and sixty-five kilometres, which might be the highest altitude to be ever reached by those types of rockets. Based on the German V-2 rocket, Véronique was the first West European liquid-fuel research rocket. Built (in Vernon, Eure) between 1950 and 1969 in several versions, the Véronique rocket is going to be the first rocket to be launched from the Guiana space centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on April 9, 1968, following the closure of Hammaguir (Bechar Province, French Algeria) in July 1967. The name Véronique is an abbreviation of Vernon-électronique.

The Diamant rocket

During the late 1940s and 1950s, substantial interest arose amongst the international powers in the development of rocketry and missile technology, in particular the prospects for ballistic missiles capable of travelling great distances. Both of the emergent superpowers of the time, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics chose to invest heavily within this new field, observing its political and military importance; it was not long before a highly competitive atmosphere emerged where neither entity wished to fall behind the other in missile technology, which directly led to the so-called “Space Race”. As a result, in 1959, the French government established the Space Research Committee or Comité de Recherches Spatiales (CRS), which would later be replaced by the CNES. From an early stage, the organisation’s primary goal was to pursue the development of an indigenous expendable launch system with which payloads, such as satellites, could be launched into orbit. On November 26, 1965, the first Diamant rocket was fired from its launch site, the Interarmy Special Vehicles Test Centre or Centre d’essais d’engins spéciaux (CEES), at Hammaguir, Bechar Province, French Algeria.

The Diamant rocket was the first exclusively French expendable launch system and at the same time the first satellite launcher not built by either the United States of America or USSR. As such, it has been referred to as being a key predecessor for all subsequent European launcher projects. The French-built satellite launcher’s first shot happened in 1965 and sent the French Astérix satellite (thirty-nine kilograms) into a Low Earth Orbit.

The Astérix satellite and the French space program

Astérix, the first French satellite, was launched on November 26, 1965 by a Diamant rocket from the CIEES launch site at Hammaguir, French Algeria. With Astérix, France became the sixth country to have an artificial satellite in orbit after the USSR (Sputnik 1, 1957), the United States of America (Explorer 1, 1958), the United Kingdom (Ariel 1, 1962), Canada (Alouette 1, 1962), and Italy (San Marco 1, 1964), and the third to launch a satellite on its own (Ariel 1, Alouette 1 and San Marco 1 were launched on American rockets). The satellite, launched in order to test the Diamant launching vehicle, was originally designated A-1, as the French Army’s first satellite, but later renamed after the popular French comics character Astérix. Due to the relatively high altitude of its orbit, it is not expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere for several centuries.

Concluding remarks on the French space program

Today, the French space program brings together all French civil and military space activities. Most of these have been carried out since the 1970s in a multinational framework, particularly within the European Space Agency (ESA), which coordinates the European space program.