1992: the year when Europe said YES to Maastricht and NO to Hermes
PARIS --- In the early 1990s, Europe, on the initiative and under the leadership of France, carried out the Hermes project for a manned European space shuttle, intended for missions in low earth orbit. Started in the mid-1970s (feasibility studies) at CNES and in industry, the Hermes space plane program was launched in 1983 by President Mitterrand.
For France, it was an opportunity to participate in the "Star Wars" launched by President Reagan at about the same time. Hermes was Europeanized by ESA during the conferences of Rome (1985) and The Hague (1987) at the same time as Ariane-5 which was to put it into orbit. France remained leader, and Germany and many European countries joined the project.
But this program faced difficulties from the beginning. In particular, the accident of the shuttle Challenger in 1986 led to endless procrastination on how to evacuate the crew in case of accident. This resulted in an increase in mass which led to a cycle of modifications to the launcher/spacecraft which was very detrimental to the program but not technically insoluble. It resulted in a delay of two precious years for the real start of the project.
The final blow was brought by the end of the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the USSR. Although Germany was very involved in Hermes and rather favorable to manned flight, the political and budgetary imperatives of German reunification will lead to the abandonment of the European space plane. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was signed and the Hermes program was definitively stopped. A symbol.
In his book "Hermès, une ambition en héritage" (2021), François Leproux underlines that the technological advances acquired in this program were considerable in fields such as aerodynamics, thermal protection and flight controls. These technological advances benefited primarily the French companies Aerospatiale (now Airbus) and Dassault Aviation. NASA will salute the design chosen by Dassault Aviation, a very different formula from that of the Space Shuttle: a delta wing without vertical stabilizer. After the abandonment of the orbiters, NASA selected the SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100) capsules. It returned to the spaceplane by later selecting Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser carrier body that will serve the International Space Station starting in 2023. All of this has been achieved in the context of New Space and its reusable launchers. Europe is watching from afar.
After the end of Hermes, Dassault Aviation continued to work on innovative space programs in conjunction with NASA and ESA. This is particularly true for the IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) demonstrator, which made its first flight on February 11, 2015, from an altitude of 420 kilometers, decelerating from Mach 22 to Mach 2. Not having wings, it is based on the work of the carrier body and carried out its re-entry controlled by aerodynamic control surfaces -- a ‘first’ for Europe. An ESA program conducted under the prime contractorship of Thales Alenia Space-Italy, in which Dassault Aviation was involved through the design of the shape thanks to its expertise in aerodynamics and thermodynamics.
The SPACE RIDER demonstrator: a missed opportunity for France
Based on the technology of the IXV demonstrator, the Space Rider (Space Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return) is a project for an automated mini-space shuttle. A small reusable spaceplane designed to carry out civilian missions over a period of several months. It will be used to carry out experiments in microgravity or to test new technologies in flight. Its mass of 2.4 tons (50% of the X-37B) allows it to be launched by the Vega-C rocket. It has a payload capacity of 800 kgs. Its return on Earth is carried out thanks to a parachute. It can be reused six times with a six-month delay between two missions.
Following the success of the IXV demonstrator, ESA launched the first studies in 2017. At the ESA ministerial conference in Seville in November 2019, France contributed only three million euros, much less than expected by the Italians who compensated by adding 70 million euros to their initial stake. In the end, the Space Rider is one of the rare programs in the history of ESA to be oversubscribed. Although this program is carried by ESA, Italy has become the main contributor and project owner.
In December 2020, a 167 million euro development contract was signed between ESA, Thales Alenia Space (TAS) and Avio. TAS is responsible for the development of the atmospheric re-entry module and Avio is in charge of the propulsion system and the jettisonable service module. A first flight is planned for 2023.
The Space Rider is the one and only reusable space plane program in Europe. France had the possibility to enter this program at the level of Italy which was ready to welcome it. This would have allowed to show, within the framework of the French presidency of the EU, an ambition in this field which is essential for the future of aviation and space, both for civil and especially military applications. A first step towards more ambitious objects that would have allowed us to prepare the future of space planes and to build on the experience gained with the Hermes program 30 years later.
But this choice was blocked for two reasons: on the one hand, the main industrial actors in Europe (ArianeGroup in particular) do not see the budgetary competition that the arrival of a new program provokes. Their energies are focused on saving the "Soldier Ariane 6," with whom the Europeans missed the reusable launcher revolution; on the other hand, for historical reasons, the Italian Vega family of launchers, whose performance is increasing to the point of attacking Ariane from below, is not very popular with these same players. In short, the Space Rider is not "popular" in France.
On the military side, if the interest exists, it cannot be a priority. The CDE is embryonic. Its capacities are limited and its needs are immense. The CDE is not the US Space Force. No one, to this day, can box in the same category as the Americans in military space. However, the amount of the "ticket" to enter the Space Rider program (50 million euros) was within the financial reach of France. A strategic error.
Hypersonic gliders, space and commercial aviation, exploratory manned flights, military space planes: the new space conquest
The "New Space" has proven it to all those who could doubt it: the real conquest of space has only just begun. In fact, the conquest of space is entering its second phase, stimulated by the return of competition between the great powers. The stakes are high: the conquest of space resources through space exploration projects and the military domination of space. All this in a context of explosion of technologies that had been lacking in the implementation of President Reagan's "Star Wars" (Strategic Defense Initiative). This initiative never saw the light of day, but it considerably weakened the USSR.
In this competition, the two superpowers, the United States and China, were to wage a merciless struggle. Behind the United States and China, we find Russia, a pioneer space nation that will be able to rebuild its space power. And far behind, the European Union, which lives like a landlord on the achievements of the Ariane program, which is coming to the end of its cycle. Behind the great speeches, the situation is not brilliant. Budgets, vision, cohesion and ambition are lacking. Strategy is limited to a sovereign constellation and a rethink of manned spaceflight that may not be successful. This is not really the ambition of a great space power.
Europe has missed the New Space revolution. It would be a pity if it missed the revolution of space planes. This technological field is however a priority: mastering the capabilities of piloted flight at very high speed in the upper layers of the atmosphere or during re-entry.
This is a common objective for three types of capabilities that are indispensable to the great powers of tomorrow and probably more useful than space exploration, which will remain a research activity for a long time to come: reusable spaceplanes for military purposes, hypersonic maneuvering gliders and, one day, commercial or even military hypersonic aircraft.
Thanks to Italy and the Space Rider, Europe has a modest entrance ticket into the first category. France has missed the opportunity to be a central player. But the Space Rider remains a "civilian" vehicle intended for research. We are still very far from the mark, because there is no doubt that the United States and China have much more ambitious goals than the X-37B, which is already a "game changer" in the military field.
The ESA and the industrial team have indeed considered a more operational demonstrator, homothetic of the Space Rider and on the scale of the X-37B, but it would have to fly on ArianeGroup's Ariane 6.
As far as hypersonic gliders are concerned, Europeans and French are at still on the drawing board. The VMAX basic study plan, worth a few million euros and awarded by the DGA to ArianeGroup, a manufacturer of expendable ballistic rockets, will not allow us to master a technology that the United States have yet to master, despite having devoted a considerable budget. This situation is difficult to understand.
Finally, as regards the field of commercial aircraft that will fly at very high altitude (very high layer of the atmosphere) and at very high speed (higher than Mach 10), it is easy to understand that they are the "direction of aeronautical history" that will always seek to go faster and further. Hydrogen could offer technological and operational solutions compatible with environmental issues.
You can tell a space plane by its wings
However, one solution would be to launch an ambitious European spaceplane demonstrator, under French leadership, like the Hermes program 45 years ago. A demonstrator capable of a diversified range of civil and military missions. Its goal would be to pursue the mastery of dual technologies that will enable us to maintain a competitive advantage in the field of military aerospace superiority and in that of future commercial aerospace aviation.
The goal would be for France and Europe to participate, along with the United States, China and Russia, in this new aerospace conquest, another aspect of the "New Space" that we must not miss.
We don't hear much about space planes in Europe. Except from one of the last manufacturers who know how to make high performance airplanes and who, since Marcel Dassault, has maintained expertise in the critical fields of aerodynamics and thermodynamics: Dassault Aviation.
So, let's give the floor to its CEO who declared, on November 6, 2018, before the Association of Centraliens: "he who controls space, will control what's below. We will have to be in space with most certainly space planes in 15 to 20 years from now. If we fly in space, Dassault Aviation can and must be there. If we maneuver in space, Dassault has a brick of expertise to contribute to any prime contractor. The reconquest of space is underway. In the civilian space sector, the Americans have moved up a gear. In the military field, it is a necessity for us if we want to remain autonomous in space.”
But, as the saying goes, “no one is a prophet in his own country”...
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