Stellar journey: France’s place in the space race

Astronaut Claudie Haignere waves from Soyuz

With a film about the moon landings and lunar anniversaries coming up, Samantha David examines France’s space-bound history and talks exclusively to its only female astronaut

In this coming year people all over the world will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first human to walk on the Moon. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 Mission astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed the lunar module (codenamed ‘Eagle’) on the Moon’s surface and the next day Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

A biopic about Neil Armstrong (First Man) has already been released and throughout 2019 we will see a plethora of other space-exploration events commemorating the first moon walk. Officially, the US won the Space Race – but France’s contribution to space exploration has always been substantial.

 Exploring the universe through science, engineering and technology has been a French obsession for centuries; an item looking exactly like a rocket even features in a French tapestry dating back to 1664.

Jules Verne wrote De la Terre à la Lune in 1865, George Méliès’ film Voyage dans la Lune was made in 1902, and throughout the 18th century Frenchmen including the Montgolfier brothers attempted to take to the skies.

Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac managed to reach 7,016 metres above the earth in 1904. Between the wars, several French aerospace engineers were designing rockets and who knows what the outcome might have been, because of course the outbreak of the First World War effectively grounded their dreams.

As soon as the First World War was over, however, the French love affair with space began again: the Laboratoire de Recherches Balistiques et Aérodynamiques (LRBA) was set up in 1946, and in 1961, Charles de Gaulle’s government created the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) to coordinate French space exploration efforts.

It is based in Toulouse rather than Paris, in ...

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