Airbus Defence and Space

Ariane, from first steps to maturity, by Bernard Humbert

Bernard Humbert joined SEREB in 1967 and has been part of the Ariane adventure from the outset, starting with the programme as an Industrial Architect manager and leading up to management of the Space Programmes Division at EADS Space Transportation in Les Mureaux near Paris, until 2003. He takes a look back at 30 unique years.


“As we now, in 2009, talk of the forthcoming 30th birthday of Ariane, it inevitably takes me back to that 24 December 1979, when after several attempts, the first Ariane launcher finally managed to lift off into the skies above Kourou.

Ariane 1 and the role of industrial architect
This magnificent launch was clearly the culmination of all the work that had been carried out since 1973 and, more particularly for us in the Industrial Architect teams, it proved that we had successfully performed the role entrusted to us, which was to ensure coherent technical development of the launcher. The importance accorded to this role of industrial architect in the Ariane programme organisation was one of the lessons that had been learned from the failure of Europa, the first European launcher programme.

Through the use of common management rules, control of development of all launcher elements and simulation of the flight phases using real elements whenever relevant, the verification of the launcher’s flightworthiness was carried out as thoroughly as possible. In the SIL (launcher integration site) at Les Mureaux, we therefore performed integration and inspection of the first launcher before it set sail for Cayenne. The flight software underwent repeated simulations, before being sent to Kourou on ticker tape (it’s what everybody used at that time!). All that remained was to see what happened during the flight itself. After the launch, it was with immense satisfaction that we saw the vehicle’s flight path mirroring that traced out on the plotters. The Industrial Architect teams had also passed with flying colours.

Ariane 4 was not to end up in a museum!
1990. The two launcher integration facilities at Les Mureaux – for Ariane 4 in the foreground and Ariane 5 behind.
1990. The two launcher integration facilities at Les Mureaux – for Ariane 4 in the foreground and Ariane 5 behind.

Later in my career I was in charge of Industrial Architect activities for the Ariane 4 programme and the enormous challenges of this programme are not something which I will forget. We are all aware of the technical and commercial success of this launcher, the most reliable of all unmanned space launchers. What is less well-known is that in the early 1980s, there were many who predicted a far different future. At that time, the Americans saw the Space Shuttle replacing conventional launchers, which were destined to become museum pieces. Ariane therefore found itself in direct competition with the Shuttle and its capacity for carrying large-diameter satellites. To remain competitive in the small, medium and large commercial satellite launch market, the dual-launch policy had to be maintained and we needed to offer a launch capacity of at least two and half times that of Ariane 1. On this basis, and using existing elements (engines, stages, etc.), the six versions of the Ariane 4 launcher were born. Ariane 4 was extremely long and thin, topped by a payload fairing whose diameter far exceeded that of the third stage. This resulted in a considerable rise in structural loadings and in ‘flyability’ problems. Our design offices brilliantly took up the challenge of this unprecedented complexity and refined their analysis and computing methods in order to demonstrate the flightworthiness of the entire family.

The Challenger accident of 1986 was to curtail the Shuttle’s satellite launch ambitions and for a while Ariane was left with no serious competitor, enabling Ariane 4 to take advantage of the situation right from its first launch in June 1988.

It doesn’t hurt to dream
Towards the end of the 1970s, we started defining what was intended to be an Ariane version capable of launching a manned vehicle, Hermes. The Ariane 5 design was therefore frozen in the mid-1980s based on one lower twin-stage, with Hermes on top for low earth orbit injection and an upper stage atop for geostationary transfer orbit injection. I was appointed to the technical management of the Hermes programme in 1988 and was to move away from Ariane for nearly 10 years. Hermes was never to become more than a dream, but we did at least have the satisfaction of giving birth to the ARD and ATV.

Towards launcher industrial project management
On my return to the Space Programmes Division, the situation had changed considerably. Ariane now had to face competition from launchers from the former Soviet Union, marketed by American firms, and its operating and production costs had to be considerably reduced. The first consequence of this was that Ariane 4 and Ariane 5 would not be able to live side by side for long. It was not easy for me to recommend terminating Ariane 4, but finally reason won over emotion. For those involved in the production cost reduction efforts, the watchwords were also logic and reason. Finally, Airbus Defence and Space was given industrial project management of the launcher. On the eve of its 30th birthday, Ariane has reached maturity!”

Launcher SystemAriane 4Ariane 5