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Aux Etoiles!

By Chris Oakley

Part 3



Summary: In the first two chapters of this series, we looked back at the beginnings of the Anglo-French Project Hermes space program and the international reaction to the program’s early successes. In this segment we’ll review the debate in India over Rakesh Sharma’s famous "space memo" and the tragedy of the Hermes V explosion.


Rakesh Sharma’s memorandum proposing the creation of an Indian manned space program touched off a good deal of controversy when it became public in early December of 1979. A sizable part of the Delhi government-- not to mention much of the Indian public --felt it was a waste of time and money to be flirting with joyrides in space at a time when millions of Indians couldn’t even get enough food to live on. There were an equal number of people, however, who felt that the young air force officer’s idea might be just the thing India needed to jump-start its scientific and economic sectors and take its place among the world’s great powers.

In March of 1980, four months after the Hermes III crew returned to Earth and three months before Hermes IV was launched, the Times of India printed an editorial coming out foursquare in favor of Sharma’s proposal. Given the paper’s influential role in India’s cultural and political life, this ensured that Sharma’s proposals would soon begin to garner serious attention from high-level officials in Delhi-- not to mention several other countries which had never previously thought about attempting a manned spaceflight.

The argument over Sharma’s "space memo" would span much of the 1980s and would reverberate throughout every echelon of the Indian government. Even the lowliest post office clerks would voice strong opinions either in support of or in opposition to the idea of a manned Indian space program. Not until Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister of India would the controversy begin to show even faint signs of dying down...


....and in the meantime the Project Hermes program would be hit with two major setbacks, one of which nearly shut it down forever. The blastoff of Hermes IV, originally scheduled for early May of 1980, had to be postponed twice-- first because of a technical glitch with the spacecraft’s ignition systems, and again because of a medical crisis which made it necessary to replace the mission specialist at the last minute. And when the mission finally did get underway in the second week of June, many of the experiments the crew had been scheduled to perform had to be cancelled because of a glitch in Hermes IV’s onboard computers.

As unfortunate as that was, however, it paled in comparison to the catastrophe which would befall the Hermes V mission in October of 1980. Hermes V would witness the first death of Western astronauts in the line of duty since the Apollo 1 fire of 1967. What started out as a routine launch turned into a moment of horror for spectators and the Project Hermes directors when, just three minutes after blastoff, the Hermes V launch vehicle exploded and killed its entire crew instantly. According to one British newspaper correspondent present at the launch pad at the time of the disaster, wreckage from the Hermes V explosion was scattered over nearly fifty square miles of Welsh countryside. One of the larger debris fragments actually boomeranged back towards the launch pad and narrowly missed the flight control center; nothing of the crew survived except for a handful of bone fragments and a rather badly singed shoulder patch from the mission co-pilot’s uniform.

Overnight, the Hermes program’s reputation-- not to mention the program itself --was in mortal jeopardy. Newspaper editorials on both sides of the English Channel began questioning the wisdom of launching any further manned missions into space; some key officials in both the British and French governments heard increasingly strident calls for their resignation. There was even a brief movement within the ranks of Britain’s Conservative Party to replace Margaret Thatcher as the prime minister. Although that movement was quickly squelched, it was solid proof of just how deep anger ran on both sides of the English Channel over the Hermes V disaster.

In fact, Prime Minister Thatcher shared much of that anger herself. She told her most senior science and technology advisors shortly after the explosion that she considered it "unconscionable" more hadn’t been done to protect the Hermes V crewmen from such a calamity; within a week of the explosion at least a quarter of the engineering personnel on the Project Hermes payroll had either been fired or were on suspension pending the determination of the official British government inquiry into the cause of the disaster.

In Paris, French president François Mitterand convened a special meeting at his office of some of France’s leading scientific figures and recruited them to form an investigative committee whose work would complement the British inquiry into the explosion. Because there had been rumors of possible sabotage, the Sûrété, France’s national police agency, would be assisting the Mitterand panel with its work. By the time the official inquiries into the explosion submitted their final reports to the French and British governments, over 250 investigators would be involved in the search for the cause of the Hermes V tragedy.

Also getting involved with the inquiries would be a team of NASA observers who would use the information garnered during the Hermes V investigation to improve safety protocols for future U.S. human space missions. At the time of the Hermes V explosion the debut launch of America’s first space shuttle was six months away, and the last thing NASA wanted was a repeat of the Hermes V catastrophe.

For a time it seemed as if the Hermes launch pads might sit empty forever, monuments to dashed hopes and dreams. But as the weeks and months passed, sentiment began to build in favor of resuming the Hermes program just as America had gone forward with the Apollo project in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire. In late January of 1982, fifteen months after the Hermes V disaster, the program resumed manned space launches with the Hermes VI mission.1 To minimize the risk of civilian casualties if another disaster occurred, spectators were barred from the main launch site and the press was restricted to an enclosed compound that was shielded by several layers of concrete. An extra contingent of firefighters was placed on standby if worst came to worst....


...but even with those added safety precautions an air of tension still hung over the launch site. There were any number of things that could still go wrong and nobody at the launch control station was going to officially put this mission down in the record books as complete until the Hermes VI crew had safely orbited the earth, splashed down in the North Sea, and been flown home by the recovery helicopters that would (hopefully)be deployed to the landing site by the Royal Navy at the end of the mission.

The final seconds before launch felt more like eons as the Project Hermes flight control team awaited the ignition of the Hermes rocket’s main engines. In the back of their minds a sense of dread still lingered; the memory of the Hermes V disaster was fresh in their individual and collective psyches, and until the capsule was in Earth orbit they couldn’t shake the feeling history might repeat itself. So it was with gratitude that the launch control team watched the Hermes VI capsule blast off from its launching pad and take up its assigned orbit 30,000 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Four days later, the same tension that had greeted the Hermes VI launch enveloped the project flight control team for a second time as the flight crew prepared for re-entry. In spite of the abundance of safety precautions which had been taken, there was still an outside chance the capsule’s heat shield could malfunction and the crew get incinerated while passing through the atmosphere. But to everyone’s relief, the re-entry went off without a hitch and the Hermes VI crew splashed down with no ill effects other than a slight case of rattled nerves when their capsule wobbled slightly in the final seconds prior to splashdown.

With the Hermes VI flight safely in the books, the Project Hermes senior directors could now focus on preparations for Hermes VII. The Hermes VII mission marked the addition of Norway to the roll call of European countries participating in the Hermes program; the co-pilot and mission specialist for the Hermes VII flight were both Norwegian air force officers who had originally been scheduled to serve on the backup crew for Hermes VIII but were moved up to the main flight crew for Hermes VII after the Hermes VII launch was rescheduled. When the news broke that they would be going aloft on the Hermes VII mission as part of the main crew, it triggered a media frenzy in Norway; it also touched off a storm of debate in Norway’s southern neighbor Denmark as to whether the Danish government should join the Hermes program. Those who opposed such participation said that the expense of training men to fly into space would take away money needed to finance the Danish government’s various social programs; those who favored participation argued that Project Hermes represented a golden chance for Denmark to enhance its scientific standing in Europe and throughout the world.

The debate was still raging when Hermes VIII blasted off on July 17th, 1982. Besides marking the addition of Norway to the roll call of nations taking part in the Hermes project, the Hermes VIII flight also set a new record for duration: her crew stayed aloft twelve and a half days, surpassing by more than two days the previous record set by the Hermes III flight. Throughout those twelve and a half days, Norwegians and Danes alike followed the Hermes VIII crew’s activities like they would a particularly exciting soccer match. So-called "Hermes clubs" were formed in Copenhagen and other Danish cities to give space buffs a chance to share their hobby with fellow enthusiasts.

By the time Hermes VIII splashed down in the North Sea early on the afternoon of July 30th, there were hundreds of such clubs across Denmark and the nucleus of a grass-roots movement to convince the Danish government to join Project Hermes had started to take shape. Those who were against the notion of Copenhagen spending their hard- earned krone on sending people into orbit would soon find themselves contending with a highly vocal faction which was determined to pull Denmark into the new era of spaceflight, ready or not....


To Be Continued



[1] Originally Hermes VI was scheduled to have been launched in the spring of 1981 just after the maiden voyage of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia; however, after the Hermes V explosion concerns for the crew’s safety prompted British and French space officials to postpone the flight.


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