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Aux Etoiles!

By Chris Oakley

Part 5



Summary: in the first four chapters of this series, we looked back at the beginnings of the Anglo-French Project Hermes space program; the international reaction to the Hermes program’s early successes; the debate in India over Rakesh Sharma’s famous “space memo”; the tragedy of the Hermes V explosion; the admission of Norway as a Project Hermes partner with the Hermes VII mission; the debate which raged in Denmark during the summer of 1982 over whether the Danish government should take part in the Hermes program; and the Danish parliament’s ultimate decision in favor of joining the program. In this chapter we’ll look back at the Hermes IX mission and the beginning of preparations for the next stage of Anglo-French co-operation in human spaceflight .


Hermes IX was a watershed moment in the history of the European space program. In addition to marking the official entry of Denmark into Project Hermes and the first test of the Hermes capsule’s new emergency escape system, the mission saw the debut of a larger launch vehicle for the Hermes spacecraft-- in fact it was the largest lifting body which had been constructed for any manned spacecraft since the ill-fated Soviet Proton rocket series. Indeed, some British intelligence officials had privately expressed reservations to Prime Minister Thatcher that the new Hermes launch vehicle might meet the same fate as the first Proton rocket had.

But to everyone’s relief, the disaster envisioned never materialized. Part of the credit for this went to the design team for the new lifting body; they’d factored the Proton tragedy into their thinking processes and included a number of fail-safes which the Soviet rocket had lacked. The design of the new Hermes launch vehicle was also influenced by the American Titan II missile that had formerly served as the lifting platform for the Gemini space capsule. Indeed, some of the engineers and construction personnel involved in creating the prototype for the new Hermes lifting body were former Project Gemini employees who had been called out of retirement to lend their talents to the Hermes program. In turn, NASA would subsequently use the upgraded Hermes rocket as a template for future modifications of its own launch vehicles.

One of the other notable aspects of the Hermes IX mission was the crew’s assignment to monitor daily solar radiation patterns in northwestern Europe and transmit their findings back to Earth for an analysis of how those patterns affected telecommunications systems and incidences of skin cancer in that region. And it wasn’t simply European space officials who were interested in the results of this assignment; American space scientists were also keeping tabs on the Hermes IX mission with an eye towards processing the solar radiation data and using it to supplement what had already been learned about solar activity by Apollo and Skylab astronauts during the heyday of the Apollo program. One group especially interested in what Hermes XI might reveal on that score was a team of astronomers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California who were preparing a batch of solar wind experiments for the next space shuttle launch. For them, a successful Hermes XI mission meant the chances for accomplishing something worthwhile on their own upcoming project would be greatly improved.

Meanwhile, the directors of Project Hermes were starting to look ahead to the next phase of European space exploration and research. The Hermes capsule had been all right for getting the Anglo-French manned space program started, but a far more sophisticated breed of launch vehicle was needed for future missions-- especially if there were to be any visits to the Moon or Mars. The “little program that could”, as a Guardian article had once dubbed it in shortly before the launch of Hermes I, was growing up fast and aiming for targets its founders had barely even thought about in the project’s initial stages.

What had started as a bilateral Anglo-French project now stood as one of the largest cooperative scientific enterprises Europe had seen in at a generation. And it wasn’t just the European aerospace community that was taking a shine to the Hermes program; in May of 1983, shortly after the completion of the Hermes X mission, Japan’s leading space science official approached Project Hermes’ executive directors to inquire about the possibility of including a Japanese pilot or scientist among the crew of a future Hermes mission. Those inquiries were the starting point for a three-month-long series of multilateral conferences between the British, French, and Japanese governments about future co-operation among them in space....


...which in turn led to a major revision of the Anglo-French space program’s original charter. When it was first drafted, the program had been regarded primarily as a Europe-oriented endeavor; now it was viewed as an international undertaking, one that given time might one day serve as the prototype for a global space agency encompassing all the world’s spacefaring countries. Accordingly, in September of 1983 the U.K.-France Manned Space Cooperation Accord, the basis for Project Hermes, was re-dubbed the International Space Cooperation Pact and a new clause was added opening the project to Asian and Middle Eastern nations who might be interested in taking part in future missions by Hermes and its successor spacecraft.

The first Asian country other than Japan to sign on as a participant in the ISCP was the Philippines; Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos viewed the space project as a way to enhance not only his nation’s prestige but also his personal status as a world leader, and he wasn’t about to let that chance go by the boards if he could help it. Marcos’ critics accused him of signing the ISCP as a distraction ploy to try to camouflage his country’s internal problems along with his government’s questionable(at best) record on human rights. Not surprisingly Marcos and his first lady Imelda brushed the critics’ objections aside as if they were nothing more than annoying insects. For him, making his country a signatory to the ICSP was an accomplishment to be saluted, not criticized.

In Delhi the Indian government took keen notice of the Marcos regime’s involvement with ICSP and began to consider augmenting its own space efforts. The ideas proposed in Rakesh Sharma’s now-famous December 1979 “space memo” began to garner greater support within the upper echelons of the staff at Panchavati , although they were still looked at askance by some portions of the Indian public; not to be outdone Pakistan, India’s neighbor and chief regional rival, organized a commission to study the feasibility of becoming an ICSP signatory. In both countries the military would play a significant role in the effort to acquire a manned spaceflight capability-- in addition to having the most highly trained test pilots, the Indian and Pakistani armed forces also had the highest amount of resources when it came to rocket technology.

Not wanting to be left out of the parade, South Korea joined the ICSP in February of 1984; this move was inspired largely by an upsurge of national pride at the idea of becoming a space-faring country, but there was also the desire to beat North Korea to the punch in space(there were rumors of North Korean cosmonauts being trained for an upcoming Soyuz/Mir flight, rumors which ultimately turned out to be incorrect). By mid-April construction had started on a launch complex east of Inchon and the South Korean air force’s top test pilots were in training for a future Hermes mission.

Burma, whose military dictatorship had just seized power at the time construction started on the South Korean launch facility, tried to become part of the ICSP as well only to have its overtures rebuffed due to concerns that the military regime in Rangoon might be using space flight research as a cover story for the development of ballistic missiles. Undeterred, the military junta went forward with ambitious plans to create its own national space center only to have those plans screech to a halt in the spring of 1985 after the construction firm which had been building that space center was forced to pull out of the project due to an international embargo on doing business with the junta. (The launch center project would end up being abandoned in 1994 for lack of funds after the Burmese government was unable to get the embargo lifted; loans from foreign banks had been considered essential to seeing the project through to its completion).


In June of 1985 the British Space Agency unveiled its choice for successor to the Hermes launch vehicle. Named Shackleton in honor of the legendary and ill-fated Arctic explorer Sir Henry Shackleton, the new rocket was a three-stage design pattered after the American Saturn V series and represented a critical step forward in the Anglo-French space program. Though it was a long way from actually being put into construction, it sent a clear signal to the world that the program was ready to move beyond low-earth orbital fights. Lunar orbital missions were now starting to be discussed, and there were preliminary plans on the drawing board for a two-man lunar landing module pattered on those used during the Apollo missions of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

This sort of enterprise wasn’t going to be cheap, and when the Thatcher government realized just how expensive it was going to be to construct the Shackleton the conservative prime minister found herself on the horns of a dilemma. She’d won election to her office partly on a pledge to lower taxes on the average British citizen, but she was also keen to enhance Britain’s prestige throughout the globe; these competing aims would cause Thatcher considerable political troubles in the months ahead...

Some political analysts suggest this attitude may have helped contribute to the Marcos regime’s eventual overthrow in 1986.

The Indian prime minister’s official residence.




To Be Continued

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