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Aux Etoiles!


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Summary: In Part 1 of this series we examined the birth of the Anglo-French space program Project Hermes and the work that went into preparing for the project’s first manned space flight. In this chapter we’ll look back at the inaugural Hermes mission and international reaction to the entry of Great Britain and France into the spacefaring nations’ club.


All over Europe, millions of TV sets and radios were tuned in to coverage of the historic inaugural blastoff of Project Hermes. Then-French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing and soon-to-be British prime minister Margaret Thatcher were among the scores of VIPs who gathered at the public observation deck located two miles from the launch pad to watch Hermes I’s crew make space exploration history. Across the Atlantic, NASA observers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston kept an eye on the clock as it ticked off the final 60 seconds until the Hermes launch vehicle was sent aloft; the success or failure of the joint Anglo-French launch attempt would have substantial influence on America’s future course of action in regards to her own manned space program.

Even in Moscow the Soviet Union’s top space experts were keenly interested to see what would happen with the first Hermes mission. If it failed, that failure would cast doubt both on Project Hermes and on manned space flight as a whole; if it succeeded, the USSR would have not just one but two Western rivals in the space race. Either way, it would affect the future of the Soviet space program. Leonid Brezhnev, the CPSU First Secretary at the time, instructed his KGB chief Yuri Andropov to have the Soviet spy agency’s field operatives in the West monitor foreign press coverage of the launch for clues as to how the mission was proceeding.

At 1:21 PM on the afternoon of April 8th, 1979 Hermes I roared off its launchpad into the heavens-- and into European history. The normally cool-as-ice water news commentators at BBC-TV were waxing poetic about Hermes I’s swift ascent into the void; even the usually boisterous playgrounds of Britain’s schools were as quiet as church mice as all attention focused on the launch. At Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the British royal family gathered in one of the palace’s drawing rooms to listen to BBC Radio’s coverage of Hermes I’s climb into earth orbit. At London’s Heathrow Airport, the PA system gave regular updates on the launch for passengers at its waiting lounges.

Across the English Channel millions of Frenchmen were themselves following the Hermes I blastoff with considerable interest, especially in the Normandy village where the mission’s copilot had been born. The son of a former Free French guerrilla, Lieutenant Colonel Andre Dumont was regarded among his peers as one of the best pilots the French air force had at the time; as long as he could remember he’d wanted to go into space but hadn’t found a way to fulfill that dream until Project Hermes came along. The US Space Shuttle project was still at least 18 months away from its maiden voyage, and the possibility of Lt. Colonel Dumont going aloft in a Soviet spacecraft was minimal at best thanks in part to the tension that existed between the Western and Communist blocs in those days.

"It was like looking into the face of God."1 Dumont would later recall of his first close-up glimpse of space. "I never forgot the way the stars glittered as I looked out my window." His crewmates felt the same way, and in a BBC-TV documentary aired shortly after Hermes I’s return to Earth they waxed eloquent about what the mission commander termed "the majesty of the void"2; the Hermes I mission specialist, a lifelong amateur film buff, had taken his home movie camera with him for the ride and came back with spectacular footage of the Northern Hemisphere from Earth orbit.

Hermes I’s crew spent just over two days in space, spending most of their time monitoring magnetic activity in the earth’s atmosphere or collecting data on how solar radiation affected the performance of their spacecraft’s scientific and communications equipment. Once their work was complete, Col. Dumont and his crewmates steered their capsule to a relatively soft landing in the North Sea; a Royal Navy helicopter was waiting to bring them ashore after splashdown.

The return of Hermes I from earth orbit got major media play in Britain and France; even the notorious Fleet Street tabloids took a break from their usual diets of sex, crime, scandal and more sex to give their readers photo essays of the Hermes crew’s exploits in the heavens. With Project Hermes’ maiden flight officially in the books, British and French space officials turned their attention to starting preparations for the Hermes II mission, which was scheduled for launch in late July.


At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, NASA officials read with keen interest the official Hermes I mission recap sent to them by the British consulate in Houston. Across the Iron Curtain, a Russian-language translation of that same report was being analyzed by Soviet space experts in Moscow. Apart from a few minor technical glitches in the middle stages of the Hermes I mission and a navigational equipment malfunction that caused the capsule to miss its designated splashdown site by nearly ten miles, Project Hermes’ debut had been a resounding success.

Shortly after the Hermes I crew returned to earth, preparations began for the Hermes II mission; the Hermes II flight would last four days and give the Project Hermes team the opportunity to further test their spacecraft’s capabilities. Originally set to launch on July 25th, a combination of mechanical difficulties and rainy weather would delay its takeoff for four days. The fact that rain played a part in the decision to postpone the launch was something of an irony, considering one of Hermes II’s assigned mission tasks was to monitor storm-related atmospheric activity over western Europe and the Mediterranean and to photograph cloud patterns connected to such activity. When Hermes II finally did launch, just after 5:30 PM London time on July 29th, its departure into space was followed with particularly keen interest by one man: Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping. After years of largely self- imposed isolation under the rule of Mao Zedong, China was beginning to reassert its place on the world stage under Deng’s reformist policies, and he understood full well that a successful space program could do wonders for a nation’s prestige. He resolved that within the next ten years China would achieve its own manned spaceflight capability.

Accordingly, in early September of 1979 he established the China Central Space Bureau. Not surprisingly, the new agency’s first order of business was to commission a study of Project Hermes to determine how its lessons could be applied to China’s own future manned space operations. The CCSB also instituted engineering programs to enhance the launch capabilities of China’s Long March rocket facilities; by late 1980, the first of a new generation of Chinese satellites was ready for deployment in space and the nucleus of a Chinese astronaut corps was undergoing training to acquaint themselves with the basics of manned spaceflight. Some of the more optimistic souls in the CCSB senior leadership thought a manned Chinese sub-orbital flight could be launched by 1985, four years ahead of the target date set by Deng.


In the meantime, the Project Hermes team was busy preparing for the Hermes III mission, scheduled for early November of 1979. On this flight the crew would be assigned to monitor electromagnetic activity in Earth’s atmosphere while spending eight days in orbit. It was also to be the program’s first nighttime launch and its first mission with an Italian crew member on board; Franco Malerba, a former Laboratorio de Biofisica e Cibernetica Genova research assistant and Italian navy reserve officer, had been designated as Hermes III mission specialist. What seemed like half of Italy’s press corps was gathered in Britain to cover Malerba’s training for the historic launch.

Events in Iran would push the Hermes III flight off the media radar in the United States, but most of the rest of the world would be following the mission with rapt interest. In Franco Malerba’s old hometown of Busalla, every TV set and radio in town was tuned in to news coverage of the launch; even die-hard soccer fans were blowing off their normal sports programming in favor of the blastoff. Up in Rome Pope John Paul II, then just over a year into his papacy, went to the Vatican City observatory shortly after the launch so that he and his top advisors could use its telescopes to track Hermes III’s orbit once the spacecraft left Earth’s atmosphere.

As it turned out, the crew of Hermes III would be spending even more time aloft than originally scheduled-- thanks to a storm surge in the Atlantic that forced the Project Hermes flight control team to postpone the capsule’s re-entry, Hermes III would log almost ten days in earth orbit before splashing down some 420 nautical miles off the Scottish coast. Franco Malerba returned to Italy a national hero and was awarded the Italian government’s highest civilian medal for his history-making space flight; during the mid-1980s he would serve as an advisor to the European Space Agency(ESA) when it started training astronauts for the U.S. space shuttle program.

The Project Hermes team started the year 1980 by setting a fairly ambitious goal for itself: to construct and put into orbit a full-time manned Anglo-French space station no later than 1992. The proposed new space station, designated Galileo after the famous Italian astronomer, was conceived partly as a response to the loss of the American Skylab space station a year earlier; Galileo’s design would subsequently have a significant influence on NASA’s own post-Skylab manned space station concepts.

Galileo would also inspire one country which had never previously considered launching a manned spaceflight to take the first concrete steps toward making such a launch possible. Shortly after the Galileo concept was first broached by the Project Hermes senior staff, a young Indian Air Force officer named Rakesh Sharma drafted a report to his superiors suggesting that India begin training its own astronaut corps as soon as circumstances permitted it. In the decade or so ahead, his suggestion would end up putting another contestant on the increasingly crowded track of the space race...


To Be Continued



[1] Quoted from a 1989 Paris-Match interview marking the tenth anniversary of the Hermes I flight.

[2] From the 1979 BBC1 documentary Her Majesty’s Astronauts: The Story of Project Hermes.

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