When France became the third space power

On November 26, 1965, France placed the A1 satellite, also known as Astérix, into orbit. Less than ten years after humanity entered the Space Age, France surprised everyone by becoming the third country to place an object into Earth’s orbit, after the Soviet Union in 1957 and the United States of America in 1958. The name of the satellite was originally A1 (A for Army). The satellite was first called Zébulon, the name of a character mounted on spring in the children’s program Le Manège enchanté. This unexpected success brought joy to the commentators and journalists of the time, who did not hesitate to rename the satellite by the name of Astérix, a small and strong Gallic always ready to face the great powers. Besides, that name remained to it.

The Astérix or A1 satellite, the first French satellite in outer space, was launched by the 19-meter long Diamant A rocket, from the Hammaguir base in Algeria. In the wake, on December 6, 1965, the first CNES scientific mission was a success with the launch of the FR1 satellite. Despite the fierceness of the competition, its European heirs now account for half of the commercial launches.

In September 1959, the Society for the Study and Realization of Ballistic Vehicles (SEREB) was created following the decision of General De Gaulle who wanted France’s independence concerning ballistic missiles and nuclear power. In the fall of 1960, the first real sketches of a launcher capable of orbiting satellites at an altitude of eighty to five hundred kilometres appeared. France is going to develop the Saphir, a two-stage missile (its first stage, Émeraude, is liquid propulsion). With a third stage, France could reach satellisation. The second stage will be Topaze (propulsion powder). The famous Gemstone program was born.

In December 1961, the government decided to create the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and launch its three-stage launcher, Diamant A. originally, it was the army which was in charge. After negotiations, it was decided that it would be better to launch a satellite in low Earth orbit rather than a capsule. But as time was lacking for the creation of a real satellite, a capsule A with a radio wave beacon, a telemetry system (for information on the behaviour of the satellite in low Earth orbit), a temperature measurement system and a radar transponder were developed. The A1 was born.

Between 1963 and 1965, several tests took place with Émeraudes and Topazes. The third stage developed, the Rubis, will use powder; it will have a compartment where the A1 satellite can be placed. Assembled, Diamant A has a length of almost nineteen meters and weighs eighteen tons. SEREB is in charge of the construction of the Diamant A launcher. The A1 satellite is manufactured by Matra. It measures fifty-five centimetres high and has a diameter of fifty-five centimetres. It weighs forty kilograms. The launch was from the Brigitte launch pad in Hammaguir, Algeria. The tanks were filled at six in the morning with nitric acid and turpentine. Take-off took place on November 26, 1965 at four o’clock (Paris time).

At approximately forty-three kilometres above sea level, the first floor separated after one minute and thirty-five seconds; the first floor landed about three hundred and fifty kilometres away from the firing point. At one hundred and thirty kilometres above sea level, the second floor went out; two minutes had passed since take-off. At two minutes and thirty seconds, the nose cone separated and a few seconds after, the satellisation began. Five minutes after take-off, the second stage fell in the Mediterranean Sea. The third stage will ignite after seven minutes and twenty seconds; it will turn on its roll axis before extinguishing forty-five seconds later. The speed of orbiting, almost eight thousand meters per second, is reached at an altitude of five hundred and fifty kilometres. Ten minutes after the launch, the A1 satellite separated itself from the Diamant A rocket and started orbiting the Earth.

The A1 satellite will remain silent, its antennas having been damaged when the nose cone was ejected. The satellite’s apogee will be one thousand and eight hundred kilometres, its perigee will be five hundred and thirty kilometres. The French satellite will orbit the Earth in one hundred and eight minutes. The French Post, of course, will celebrate this event with the issuance on November 30, 1965 of a triptych composed of two stamps and a central vignette. The triptych will also be issued (in different colours) in early 1966 in the overseas territories. The Air and Space Museum at Le Bourget has in its Hall Espace a Diamant A launcher and a scale replica, more exactly a test model, of the Astérix satellite. The Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse also has a replica of the Astérix satellite.

This landmark event shows that France has quickly set up a new field of innovation, accompanied by new ways of organizing scientific work as well as new institutions to coordinate this work. For a long time, and this is particularly true for space activities, many historians have reinforced the binary interpretive framework of reducing the Cold War to the well-known confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR. However, as the case of the Astérix satellite shows and, more generally, French space activities, despite the undeniably important weight of the two great world powers during the Cold War, it is wrong to lose sight of European countries in the space field. A transnational and therefore more global perspective makes it possible to give a fairer place to the circulation of actors and techniques that played a key role in the sharing and transmission of knowledge. As in the nuclear field, every nation involved in the development of ballistic missiles and space technologies has been a proliferator and has benefited from proliferation.

In the space field, international and informal networks were formed in Europe and the United States of America in the 1920s, and the subsequent development of ballistic missiles in Germany benefited greatly from these exchanges of technologies and knowledge. At the end of the Second World War, German engineers and scientists who contributed to the construction of the V-2 rockets helped to build the space programs of the two superpowers; France and the Great Britain were also able to benefit from this know-how. Subsequently, China and Japan benefited respectively from technology and knowledge transfers from the USSR and the United States of America. Thus, only ten years after the launch of Astérix, all of these countries were part of the prestigious club of space powers, joined a little later (in the 1980s) by India and Israel who took advantage in turn of the support offered by Western Europe, the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

The importance of the transnational perspective should not, however, obscure the national framework as an analytical framework, since in the case of post-war France, the technologies acquired in the space environment played a key role in the construction of a new national identity. The rise of space research in the late 1950s was strongly marked by a context of general modernization and a deep reinvention of France as a technological power, particularly in order to gain greater diplomatic and military autonomy. In other words, it is the military imperative that marked from the beginning this new political will, introduced by De Gaulle after his election in 1958. This resulted in the construction of nuclear weapons as a new strike force as well as the development of different space technologies. Thus, the arms race and the race for space gave a politico-symbolic significance to all the technological advancements in France in the first decades of the post-war period.

The Diamant launcher obviously also reflected this profound tension between military aims and civilian applications. Even if it was a civilian launcher, much of its technological inspiration came from the military field, that is to say the “Gemstone” program that France had set up in the early 1960s. To achieve its strategic objectives, France, under the presidency of General De Gaulle, relied mainly on own nuclear deterrence capability as well as its own technical capabilities to launch nuclear warheads. When the engineers of the SEREB consortium received the agreement of De Gaulle to continue to develop a launcher in 1961, they had successfully tested powder missiles with test vehicles. By combining a powder missile with a liquid propulsion stage, they obtained in 1965 a guided missile called Saphir. The latter formed the base of the Diamant A launcher, which putted into orbit Astérix on November 26, 1965.