France enters space

While Britain's rocket programme ultimately failed due to a lack of political vision, the French effort thrived on Gallic self-assurance. In the late 1940s, French scientists, helped by a few of their captured German counterparts, formed plans to turn the A9, von Braun's planned successor to the V-2, into reality. While these ideas proved overly ambitious, they still led to the successful Veronique series of sounding rockets, first launched in 1950. In parallel with these efforts, France developed a series of ballistic missile prototypes, each named after a precious stone.

In 1961, France's newly created space agency, the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), decided to build a satellite launch vehicle. Diamant, as it became known, was evolutionary rather than revolutionary - a tried and tested two-stage Saphir missile with a new third stage added. The first Diamant A launch took place at Hammaguir, Algeria, in November 1965 and was an unqualified success, launching a small satellite, the A-1 or Astérix, into orbit. This made France only the third nation on Earth to launch its own satellite.


The first French satellite, Astérix (left), was little more than an orbiting radio transmitter. More advanced was Diapason (above), which incorporated a modified transmitter for measuring the speed of the satellite and therefore the Earth's varying gravity.

Diamant launches continued alongside French involvement in the ELDO project, but in the late 1960s France also developed the improved Diamant B launcher and a new launch complex at Kourou in French Guiana. Diamant B first launched from Kourou in March 1970, and the programme continued until 1975. When France ultimately abandoned its national launch vehicle, it was only to take the lead role in ESA's more ambitious Ariane project.


The production-line system established for the Vostok capsules has remained largely unchanged to this day. Here engineers work on fitting a Vostok spacecraft into its launch shroud.

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