In 1961, France took the decision to develop a civilian launch vehicle, using as a basis systems and stages from a series of strategic rockets known as the ‘precious stones’ (since the five test vehicles were all named after jewels – the French for agate, topaz, emerald, ruby and sapphire). This task was one of the primary objectives of the newly-created French national space agency CNES, which provided the funding and selected the company SEREB (Société pour l’Etude et la Réalisation d’Engins Balistiques) as prime contractor for the programme in May 1962. It was quickly done: three and a half years later the first French launch vehicle, Diamant (‘diamond’) A took off from the base at Hammaguir in Algeria on 26 December 1965 and successfully placed in orbit the first French satellite, a technology capsule called Astérix. Now with its own proven satellite launch capability, France took its place as the third-ranking space nation in the world.
The Diamant launchers were three-stage launchers, the lower two stages taken from the precious stones vehicles, and the third specially designed and built for the new launcher.
Three further Diamant A launches, on 17 February 1966, 8 February 1967 and 15 February 1967, orbited three geodetic satellites fro the D-1 programme. All four Diamant A launches being classed as test flights, the operational version, Diamant B, was produced and used between 1970 and 1972, boosting off from the new space centre in Kourou, French Guiana. In January 1972, development began on the next version, Diamant BP4, which retained the first and third stages of the Diamant B, but swapped the second stage for that of a MSBS ballistic missile. Three Diamant BP4s were launched between February and September 1975, carrying the satellites Starlette, Castor and Pollux, and Aura.
The Diamant programme transformed France as a space nation. The experience it provided enabled France to propose and initiate development of a new more capable and powerful launcher in collaboration with other European countries, thus laying the first ‘precious stone’ of the Ariane programme. In order to dedicate research and resources to the European Ariane project, the Diamant adventure came to a definitive end after 1975.
Diamant is also part of Airbus Defence and Space's history and heritage. On 1 January 1970, SEREB merged with Nord Aviation and Sud Aviation to form Aérospatiale, which in turn nearly two decades later joined forces with Matra to become Aérospatiale-Matra, one of the founding companies of AIRBUS Group.