These days, the space sector is all around us – in navigation and telecommunications, for example – yet Europe’s space sector is only 50 years old. That past half century has been a roller-coaster ride of rockets and satellites, and in this edition of Space we tell that story.
In 1964 the world was in the heat of the Cold War. It had just begun to race towards space: Sputnik had sent its first signal, Yuri Gagarin had flown into orbit, and there was constant sparring between the United States and the Soviet Union in the battle to be the dominant superpower in the final frontier.
“The world was an extremely dangerous fragile place.” says John Krige, an historian at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has authored books on the history of ESA and CERN.
“Superpower rivalry was probably at its height in the early 1960s, particularly around the Cuban missile crisis when I was a young man, and I certainly thought that that was the end of the world, and I think many people did,” he adds.
Into that climate of tension stepped Italian Eduardo Amaldi, and Frenchman Pierre Auger, two European physicists. They fervently believed that rockets and satellites should be used for science, not sabre-rattling.
Roger-Maurice Bonnet, a former Director of Science at the European Spcace Agency says it was a tentative beginning: “The countries that made Europe’s space sector were the countries that 20 years beforehand were at war, a terrible war. Those countries in Europe who’d been at war got together and decided to use a language that couldn’t drive them to conflict – the language of science.”
The early years were ones of limited budgets, problems with the Europa rocket, and tensions between partners like the UK and France. Then the move towards ESA began, as John Krige explains: “In the late ’60s they said ‘OK, we should really begin to fuse these two organisations’. This went in fits and starts though, and a programme was hammered out in a very, very tense meeting in ’73 which would be the basis of this new single organisation. “It would have space science as a mandatory programme. Mandatory not because people loved science, but precisely because they didn’t want to fund it”
That obligation to fund science within the new European Space Agency was later seen as a masterstroke, as it boosted the research sector. But Europe still needed its own space rocket.
“The Germans were against the development of Ariane, the Brits were extremely hostile to the development or Ariane” says Krige.
“It took the French to say ‘we’re going to do this’, and it’s frankly thanks to French Gaulism and a suspicion of the United States as motives, that the French embarked on that. And that is undoubtedly the greatest success of the European space effort.”
Ariane-1 first launched in 1979. It may have been designed with the burgeoning telecoms sector in mind, but it also flew science missions into orbit. One of the early standouts was the Giotto probe’s flight past Halley’s Comet in 1986.
Gerhard Schwehm, a former Cluster and Rosetta Mission Manager at ESA said it was a high point for the agency: “I’ve been in the space business for more than 40 years, starting at university, but my strongest memory I can tell you is still the night of the Halley encounter with Giotto.
“Adrenaline was high, but for the whole night, because it had to work, and it worked great, and then all of a sudden just at the closest approach, the spacecraft was hit and tumbled, and then we lost the link to the spacecraft.
“It came back after 20 minutes. It was just overwhelming, you couldn’t do a lot, but it was just to see how it worked, and to feel with your colleagues, and to feel with all the people there at ESOC that this was really a great, great event,” says Schwehm.”
In stark contrast a decade later, in 1996, came a low point in Europe’s space odyssey. The new Ariane 5 roared off on its first ever flight – carrying the precious Cluster science satellites.
Just 45 seconds later it blew up in mid-air.
“I’ll never forget seeing these kinds of giants who were the project managers, big guys, real bosses, who were crying in a little hanger behind the rocket control centre,” says Rogerr-Maurice Bonnet.
“And I swore that we’d relaunch the Cluster mission, and that’s what we did.”
Cluster is still active, and in 2005 ESA, working with NASA, landed a probe called
Huygens on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
It was a new milestone in science, according to Gerhard Schwehm:
“The Huygens landing on Titan was an extraordinary achievement. It was also I would say nerve-wracking to get it there”.
“It’s the furthest ever landing by a man-made object in history,” adds Roger-Maurice Bonnet,
Back on Earth the prestige of science is tempered by the art of politics. Space funding has always been hard fought. One of the key elements of all negotiations is ESA’s principle of fair return – the idea that what a country invests, it gets back in contracts.
It builds expertise, but it has its problems, argues John Krige: “It has obliged the big countries, France and Germany, who could do something perhaps more quickly, perhaps more efficiently, perhaps even more cheaply, to build major consortia in which if a country participates five percent in a programme they’ve got to get five percent of the high tech contracts. That’s complicated to manage.”
It is complicated to manage – but it vields great results, as Gerhard Schwehm testifies: “Today we still have
Mars Express working, we still have Venus Express working,
Rosetta is very close to the comet.”
Roger-Maurice Bonnet believes the model is also triumph of of European cooperation: “The Europe of science is the Europe that works, and the Europe of space is one of the most spectacular components of this Europe that works.”
Europe’s 50 year space odyssey continues with regular rocket rides into orbit and science probes at the edge of knowledge.