By Chris Oakley
For most of the first fifteen years of the history of space exploration, manned space travel was the exclusive province of the United States and the Soviet Union. But that state of affairs began to change shortly after the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission; as the astronauts and cosmonauts who participated in that historic flight were heading home to Earth, Great Britain and France began a bilateral summit on the topic of mutual space research co-operation. The summit, known in the British press as the Battersea Conference because it was held in a townhouse in London’s Battersea district, planted the seeds for what would become a historic collaboration in the field of space technology.
As with most other human endeavors throughout history, the motives for the decision by the French and British governments to cooperate on developing a manned spaceflight capacity independent of America’s were rather complicated. There was to be sure a certain cynical element in the timing of the Battersea Conference; when it first convened, Great Britain and France were both undergoing a period of economic decline and political turmoil, and the conference was in some quarters seen as an attempt by the governments involved to distract the public from the real problems facing them. There was also-- at least where France was concerned --a brash desire to one-up the United States, a nation which the French greatly envied.
But there were also many honorable motives behind the quest to achieve a working Anglo-French manned space travel capability. One of these was, ironically, a desire to remedy the very economic troubles from which the Battersea Conference’s critics accused its sponsors of trying to distract the public; James Callaghan, then British prime minister, believed that the program had the potential for creating hundreds if not thousands of new jobs in both the white-collar and blue-collar sectors of the British economy, and also envisioned the possibility of manned space launches drawing tourists to Great Britain and France just as the Apollo missions had for years been attracting sightseers to Florida.
Another was the hope of adding a new page to the rich scientific legacies of Britain and France. Since at least the 16th century, Great Britain and France have been major players within the European science community; in fact, much of the astrophysical knowledge that guided American and Soviet spaceflights in the early years of the Space Age was derived from the work of British and French astronomers. The idea of seeing up close and personal what their ancestors had only been able to view through telescopes was a powerful lure for many of the men and women involved with the Anglo-French space travel development project.
A third reason lay in the emerging trend toward a so-called European Community that was starting to take root in western Europe at the time of the Battersea Conference. Britain and France were both seeking stronger ties with their continental neighbors, and some of those who supported the drive to perfect a working Anglo-French manned spaceflight capability thought such a program might draw the interest of other European countries and eventually serve as the prototype for a broader European space effort-- not to mention closer cooperation between the nations of western Europe in other areas.
Last but not least there was a desire to expand on the gains made by the British and French aerospace industries in the development of the Concorde supersonic passenger jet back in the 1960s. After years of work to create an airliner that could fly at Mach 2, British and French designers were looking forward to taking what they had learned from that experience and applying it to the job of building a manned spacecraft; they thought that it could lead to even greater strides in aerospace technology down the line.
The first order of business for the fledgling Anglo-French manned space project-- code-named Hermes1 after the Greek counterpart of the Roman god Mercury --was to set up manufacturing and testing facilities for the new rocket. Three months after the Battersea Conference, the British and French governments tendered bids for a contract to create such facilities; by the time the winning bid was submitted in April of 1976, West Germany had started to take an interest in Project Hermes as well.
In September of 1976 the Project Hermes team decided to set up their headquarters at an abandoned RAF Bomber Command airfield down in Wales. From there, the next step was the creation of an astronaut training center; construction for that facility was begun in November of 1976 and completed in August of 1977. Meanwhile, major French and British aerospace firms were retooling their existing factories and opening new ones to accommodate the demands involved in building a manned spacecraft. Simultaneously the RAF and the Armee de l’Air went to work combing their respective ranks for suitable candidates to fly Project Hermes’ inaugural mission.
By November of 1977 58 British pilots and 72 French ones had been named to the preliminary list of trainees for the first Project Hermes flight; in the months ahead the field would be narrowed down as many of the men on the preliminary list were weeded out for one reason or another, and when construction started on the first Hermes capsule in March of 1978 the roster of potential astronauts had been trimmed to 11 RAF aviators and 7 Armee de l’Air pilots. While many of the would- be astronauts weeded out of Project Hermes were effectively gone from the program for good once they’d been cut, many others would return to act as instructors or backup crews for future Hermes missions.
The final batch of trainees for the inaugural Hermes launch was selected on August 2nd, 1978; one week later the five British aviators and four French pilots chosen for that batch embarked on an advanced spaceflight instruction course to acclimate themselves to the unique challenges of flying a space capsule 200 miles above the earth. In the meantime, construction crews were putting the finishing touches on the Hermes main launchpad, located in what had once been an RAF fighter airfield in northeastern England.
Two weeks into their training, the British and French astronaut candidates were joined by a team of West German air force officers who would be schooled to serve the amorphous post of "mission specialist". The role of the "mission specialist" would vary from one Hermes flight to the next; on some missions these specialists would be little more than glorified back-seat drivers, while on others they’d do everything from take pictures to navigate re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The West German government paid Great Britain and France substantial amounts of money for the privilege, and those payments were used to finance upgrades to the Project Hermes training and launch facilities. Among some Britons and Frenchmen with long memories, the presence of the West German airmen was a source of major controversy given how the Luftwaffe had heavily bombed Britain and France during World War II; however, most British and French citizens, particularly the members of the Project Hermes team, welcomed the West German aviators’ presence as a sign of improved Anglo-French relations with Germany in the post- war era.
The involvement of the West German airmen was also controversial in some quarters of West German society, but for different reasons; many German leftists thought that the money being paid to Britain and France would be better spent on alleviating the economic troubles of West Germany’s poor, while much of the conservative wing of the West German political spectrum questioned the wisdom of investing so much time and money in a foreign space joyride while their own country was confronted with a serious Warsaw Pact threat just across its border. To the right-wing critics of West Germany’s participation in Project Hermes, then-West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt responded that such participation served as a valuable propaganda counterweight to East Germany’s involvement in the Soviet Soyuz space program; he answered left-wing critics by pointing out that for every mark paid out to the British and French governments two were coming back into West Germany through the country’s considerable tourist trade.
The training course for the maiden flight of Project Hermes was completed in early October of 1978, and with its conclusion attention now turned to the launch of that maiden voyage, scheduled for April of 1979. Nearly every major European print and broadcast news outlet sent correspondents to cover the historic launch, and there would also be a pretty substantial US media contingent on hand for the occasion. Even the Soviet Union had a modest party of TASS correspondents at the Hermes launch site.
At 1:19 PM London time on the afternoon of April 8th, 1979 flight controllers at the Hermes launch complex began counting down to the blastoff of the first Hermes mission. Simultaneous counts were being given in English, French, and German and millions of TV sets all over western Europe were tuned in to the live coverage of the events that were transpiring at the launch complex in northeastern England. The course of space exploration history was about to be changed in most dramatic fashion....
To Be Continued
1A pun on the United States’ Mercury space program of the early 1960s.