French trying to launch a European `spaceplane'

It may look like the American space shuttle, it may launch like the space shuttle, and it may glide gracefully back to Earth like the space shuttle, but don't let anyone on this side of the Atlantic catch you calling it a space shuttle. It's better. That, at least, is the partial view of French officials who have announced a project for a European ``spaceplane'' they have dubbed Herm`es. Riding on its wings are their hopes to give the Old World independent access to space exploration as well as a concrete boost in technological and scientific research.

``By the end of the century,'' says French President Franois Mitterrand, ``Europe will be a major force in space.''

Herm`es, which is now scheduled to make its first flight in 1995, will give the Europeans their own manned spaceflights without hitching rides aboard American or Soviet flights. About half the size of the American shuttle, it will carry up to six crew members and will have a smaller cargo bay.

In tandem with the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it, Herm`es will be able to do almost anything the shuttle can do -- and then some -- according to its designers. While the American shuttle combines unmanned satellite launchings with manned flights, the Europeans plan to divide the programs.

Ariane 5, a large booster that is scheduled to come into service with Herm`es, will be able to carry either heavy satellites alone on unmanned flights or Herm`es when a manned flight is necessary.

``We think that the shuttle's system is too expensive,'' says Fr'ed'eric d'Allest, general manager of the Centre Nationale d''Etudes Spatiales, the French space agency, ``and that in the final analysis, it is preferable to have specialized systems.''

The only task the Herm`es-Ariane 5 team will not be able to handle is the return of heavy satellites to Earth, which Mr. d'Allest says is unprofitable anyway. At the same time, Herm`es is more maneuverable and will be able to reach higher altitudes than the shuttle, he says.

Herm`es will take off from the European launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, and will probably return to a landing strip there, too. Aside from carrying its own scientific experiments, Herm`es will be used for flights to the United States space station, for which the European technicians and engineers are already building a module.

Planners also envision Herm`es as a workhorse to build an independent European space station during the next century. In the meantime, Herm`es builders are hoping their project will serve as a catalyst to European technological development and cooperative research.

Taking all of the improvements made in metallurgy, electronics, and artifical intelligence since the space shuttle was built, Herm`es will encourage advances and serve as ``a locomotive for these technologies,'' d'Allest says. Indeed, the concern throughout Europe these days is that its technological base is falling inexorably behind that of the United States and Japan. Herm`es, says d'Allest, is Europe's way of striking out on its own.

Despite a number of cooperative space projects with the US, the Europeans have always been excluded from the heart of the research, d'Allest adds. Congressional worries about technology transfers to East-bloc countries have reinforced this attitude, he asserts.

``That's not a criticism,'' he says. ``I understand'' the American position. But ``if all our programs are limited to ones like that,'' he adds, ``we would not be protecting our interests.''

So the program has been launched, and the work now consists of lining up commitments from other European partners and choosing industrial contractors. The current holdout is West Germany, which had not budgeted any money for the $2 billion Herm`es project. D'Allest reckons that he has about 90 percent of the program financed already from 10 nations and can build Herm`es even without the West Germans.

Asked whether he expects Herm`es to compete credibly with the American shuttle, which has so much more money and experience behind it, d'Allest replies with confidence. After years of failures, he says, Europe has developed a rocket in Ariane which has captured nearly half the world market in commercial satellite launchings -- and done so on what he estimates is one-tenth of America's space budget.

``We have created a launch system that matches the American shuttle for launching,'' he says. ``We are now in the process of closing the gap.''

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