Europe enters the Space Age

On November 26, 1965, France became the world’s third country to launch a satellite, using the Diamant A launcher to place a spacecraft affectionately named “Asterix” (after the French comic book character) into low-xEarth orbit.

Leading France into the elite “club” of space powers were three companies: SEREB (as prime contractor), Nord Aviation (responsible for the first stage) and Sud Aviation (second and third stages).

The three were later merged into Aerospatiale – one of the Airbus predecessor companies.

Diamant began its career from a launch pad called “Brigitte” at Hammaguir, Algeria – where France had established a launch site for missiles and rockets.

The Diamant A launcher’s initial liftoff mass was 18 metric tons and could carry a satellite payload of 85 kg.

Successive versions – Diamant B and Diamant B P-4, which were operated by France from its newly-established Guiana Space Centre at the overseas territory of French Guiana in South America – had increasingly improved payload lift performance, up to 150 kg. in a 500-km. altitude in circular Earth orbit.

A total of 12 Diamant vehicles were launched through November 1975, placing 11 payloads into orbit – including one double passenger mission, foretelling the future of the dual-payload missions that were to become a trademark of European launch services with Ariane.



Diamant B Launch Kourou 1970. Photo: ESA

Diamant to Ariane

France’s successful experience with Diamant was an essential credibility factor when Europe moved to the framework of a multinational space programme under management of the European Space Agency (ESA). The creation of ESA was driven in part by the failure of Europe’s first multinational launcher effort – called Europa – which was collapsed under the weight of a flawed technical and organisational structure.

Using the expertise gained with its successful Diamant programme, France came forward in 1972 with a new launcher proposal aptly named Ariane – derived from the Greek mythology name of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos’ who gave Theseus a ball of thread to guide him through the mazes of the Labyrinth. With Ariane, France and its space industry provided the pathway for Europe to escape from the multinational maze that had doomed the earlier Europa launcher. France’s Ariane proposal provided a precise technical definition for a new launch vehicle that ultimately became Ariane 1, which offered the payload lift capability of 1,850 kg. into geostationary transfer orbit and 1,400 kg. into low Earth orbit.

In addition to guaranteeing it would finance more than half of the Ariane programme, France proposed a centralised management and design/development structure that resolved challenges of the more distributed technical and managerial setup for Europa – one of the flaws that doomed this predecessor to Ariane. 

Diamant to Ariane

The Europa rocket at the Euro Space Centre in Belgium. Europa was one of the first European launchers, developed by ELDO. Photo: ESA

Success with centralised management


Launch of Ariane 1.



In fact, no single authority or group was entirely responsible or in control of Europa, something France was determined to avoid with Ariane.

Aerospatiale took the industrial architect role for Ariane and became a key contractor along with other Airbus predecessor companies: MBB, ERNO and Dornier in Germany; CASA in Spain; and Matra in France.

The first Ariane 1 was launched in 1979 from the Guiana Space Centre, providing the framework for a family of vehicles that were to become a benchmark in the world’s launch service industry.

To ensure its commercial viability, Europe formed an organisation to market the well-entrenched U.S. launcher. As a result, Arianespace was created in 1980, with offices set up next to the launcher division of France’s CNES space agency – which has the Ariane programme’s lead technical and managerial responsibility.

Europe’s Ariane product line evolved during the 1980s with the more powerful Ariane 2 and Ariane 3 versions – ultimately leading to the Ariane 4 family, consisting of six versions using a core vehicle with a mix of solid and liquid boosters that offered payload lift performance of more than 4,000 kg. into geostationary transfer orbit.

The workhorse Ariane 4

Ariane 4 earned its reputation as the Ariane family’s workhorse. With designed-in versatility, Ariane 4 proved ideal for launching communications and Earth observation satellites, as well as those for scientific research.

Its core first stage could accommodate up to two or four strap-on boosters, or a combination of the two, in “plug and play” configurations, capable of delivering satellites weighing from 2,000 kg. to nearly 4,300 kg. into geostationary transfer orbit – nearly three-times as much as the Ariane 3 version.

A trademark of the Ariane launcher (and in particular, Ariane 4) was the ability to carry multiple passengers on a single launch – a capability regularly used with commercial telecommunications satellites, enabling customers to share the launch costs.

The first Ariane 4 flew in June 1988 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, and was retired from service in February 2003, performing 113 successful launches and capturing 50% of the commercial satellite launch services marketplace – demonstrating that Europe could more than hold its own in the commercial launch field that was to become increasingly competitive.


Flight V34, carrying Intelsat VI-F2, in 1989. Photo: ESA

More “muscle” with Ariane 5

More “muscle” with Ariane 5

Galileo satellite launch for the In-Orbit Validation phase aboard an Ariane 5 from Kourou, French Guiana.

In parallel to the founding Ariane family’s development, Europe began looking in the 1970s at more powerful launchers capable of carrying the heavy telecommunications satellites envisioned for the 1990s – as well as a vehicle capable of orbiting Europe’s planned Hermes spaceplane. Although the dream of developing Hermes (a programme led by Airbus predecessor company Aerospatiale) ended because of both financial constraints and political pressures, Europe correctly anticipated the emergence of large geostationary communications relay satellites.

Full-scale studies of the future heavy-lift launcher were authorised in January 1985 by ministers representing member countries of the European Space Agency (ESA), and the development go-ahead for this new launcher – to be named Ariane 5 – came at a ministerial-level meeting of the European Space Agency nations in November 1987. These decisions showed the foresight of European industry: at the time of Ariane 5’s approval in 1987, the cornerstone Ariane 1-3 launcher versions had performed only 19 flights, of which four were failures…and the improved Ariane 4’s initial liftoff was still six months away.

Among the overriding goals for Ariane 5 were reduced costs and high reliability. The manufacture of an Ariane 5 was set at approximately 50,000 hours, compared to some 100,000 hours for an Ariane 4. Contributing to the cost reduction was the reduction in systems and components, which also contributed to a high reliability. While an Ariane 4 had up to 10 solid-propellent and liquid-fuelled motors, the increased-lift Ariane 5 is powered by four motors with significantly higher thrust.

Aerospatiale was given the Ariane 5’s industry lead-contractor role as the “industrial architect” – a responsibility transferred to Airbus when the industrial group was established, and subsequently shifted to Airbus Safran Launchers (the joint venture created in January 2015 to reorganise the European launchers sector). In 2017, Airbus Safran Launchers was renamed ArianeGroup.

Ariane 5 has lived up to its promise: as of early 2019, the heavy-lift vehicle had been launched more than 100 times from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, orbiting telecommunications satellites, Earth observation and climate-monitoring spacecraft, deep-space probes and other passenger types. Its payload lift capability has evolved from the initial 6,900 kg. in geostationary transfer orbit to an enhanced performance of 10,000 kg., along with a capacity of 20 tonnes into low Earth orbit.

Eyes on the future: Ariane 6

Eyes on the future: Ariane 6

Configuration Of Ariane 6 Using Four Boosters A64. Photo: ESA

As the launch services marketplace evolved with an increasing wide mix of satellite sizes and liftoff masses for both commercial and institutional missions, Ariane 6 was conceived to provide new levels of efficiency and flexibility to meet customers’ changing requirements.

This next-generation successor to Ariane 5 was designed with reduced production costs and design-to-build lead times in mind, while maintaining the quality and reliability that has made Ariane 5 an industry leader.

Ariane 6 features a modular configuration based on core stages powered by lower and upper liquid propellant modules, which are supplemented by either two or four strap-on solid rocket motors.

The A62 version has two solid rocket motors, with an initial performance to geostationary transfer orbit of more than 5,000 kg. and a payload lift capability of more than 5,000 kg. to an 800-km. Sun-synchronous orbit.

Ariane 6’s A64 variant will be equipped with four solid rocket motors and will have an initial performance to geostationary transfer orbit of 11,000 kg., with potential for growth.

Discover more Space history 


European telecommunications

Exploring space

Exploring the mysteries of space

Monitoring the Earth

Monitoring the Earth

Human spaceflight

Human space flight

Satellite navigation

Satellite navigation