• Stephan Raab

European–Russian Space Cooperation From de Gaulle to ExoMars

Since early days mankind has been looking up into space, curious and eager to explore the endless mysteries of the universe. In his recent book, the space policy expert and journalist Brian Harvey tells the history of the European – Russian Corporation to discover space. Besides that, this work tells the story of eager persons, working on the old utopias of spaceflight, bringing people from different backgrounds together as a united mankind on a common space mission.

A small step for a president, a colossal leap for space policy

Colossal, Colossal!”, shouted French President Charles de Gaulle attending the launching of a weather satellite at the Soviet Spaceport Baikonur Cosmodrome. On this hot summer's day, June, 20th 1966, it was just a small step for a President out of his French Air Force Caravelle passenger jet, yet a colossal leap for the European-Russian corporation in spacefaring. Prior to that, De Gaulle has not been a stranger to Russia. During his time as prisoner of war during the First World War, he met Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was supposed to become Stalin 's top marshal. Together for some time, both military leaders were supposed to have shared a cell at prison in Ingolstadt. Later, during the Second World War, as leader of the Free France, he took part in a train journey through the Soviet Union in 1944 (Harvey, 2021, p. 1f.). Consequently, cooperation between France and Russia looks back on a long joint history in the field of aviation and space cooperation, including various challenges that had o be overcome.

The author of this reviewed book works as journalist and contributor for various media including BBC World Service, Voice of America, and China Television. During his long career as space historian Brian Harvey has published several books about the evolution of space policies, including titles such as “ The Chinese Space Programme - from conception to manned spaceflight” or “ Europe's space programme” as well as his first book “ Race into space - a history of the Soviet space programme”. His most recent publication “European–Russian Space Cooperation From de Gaulle to ExoMars” comes along with a wide range of scientific explorations, discussing how exploring space serves as a mirror for the diverging national ambitions on earth.

Often the evolution of space programmes is framed according to the rivalry of democracy versus communism. Both sides, either the United States with the promises of freedom and capitalism or the Soviet Union with their creeds of socialism, were trying to show the potential of their respective system, aiming to attract allies on their side in the East or West (Powaski, 1998, 95f.). The iron curtain of both proposals for the future of the world went through Europe. Here, Western Europe used space policy as a tool for gaining independence from choosing between both blocks.

Pragmatism as programme over policies

Although ideologies always played and probably will always play an important role in establishing space programmes, the story of European-Russian cooperation starts rather out of pragmatism, mostly between France and its Soviet Russian counterparts. On the French side, Charles de Gaulle was searching for a way to modernize his country, where the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) was ought to become a central player and scientific soft diplomacy backbone with Soviet Russia (Harvey, 2021, p. 9). Here, France could rely on the launching capacities developed by the Soviet Space Agency Interkosmos, meanwhile the Soviet Union could benefit from French computer technology (Ibid. p. 38). Moreover, this corporation turned out to be beneficial for both sides, as France found a way to underline its European leadership outside from the US influence, likewise the Soviet Union opened a way to overcome the isolation imposed upon by the West through a wide sanctioning policy (Ibid., p. 378). Annual meetings were organized, strengthening established channels of communication and cooperation. Scientists from both sides, firstly France, then other Western European countries, got the chance to discover the realities of the Soviet times, whilst scientific experts from the Soviet Union got access to France and the Western ideas. Somehow here the utopia of space policy uniting a common mankind became vivid, when, for instance, on the mission launched from the Soviet Union, the French astronauts Patrick Baudry and Jean-Loup Chrétien, who was supposed to become the first Western European in space, managed to smuggle in a bottle of Bordeaux wine to the modest catering provided by the canteen adding some savoir vivre vibes (Ibid. p.162).

Nevertheless, Harvey also shows that many of those utopian dreams of space exploration were outpaced by the harsh realities of the cold war period, citing Jacques Blamont, founder of the French Space Agency in 1962: “They refused to explain their organization, their working methods, their plans. The function of the people we met was unknown, they were not allowed to speak of future projects, and they could say little about their earlier experiments. We had to guess who was who, and who did what. When we presented our ideas, we had no idea if they interested them or not. We got a yes or a no or a counter proposal” (Ibid. p.15). Later on, the Soviet representatives admitted that they did not understand the organization themselves. Apart from all the soft power of science, the matter of trust and mistrust was the cornerstone during the Cold War.

From technology transfer to the exchange of experiences

If you have ever experienced the wonder to observe our blue planet from the distance of space, you will see things differently. Up in the vastness of space, the people´s live seem to be small and insignificant. You ask yourself what mankind has achieved, which goals did it set itself, as which of them did it accomplish.” This iconic scene from the German movie Goodbye Lenin, appeals to the history of European-Russian cooperation in space programmes. In this movie, a family during the time of reunification has to pretend that the old GDR still exists, as the mother of the family, a staunch communist, spent the time of the fall of the wall in coma. Eventually this movie ends with the dissolution of GDR on October, the 3rday of German reunification, when the first German in space Sigmund Jähn declares the opening of the borders. This movie stands as intertwining the story of historic events with personal stories (Kaupp, 2003).

In his book, Brian Harvey manages to tell the story not simply of technologies and great achievements, yet he also manages to combine the big dimensions of global politics with the rather small aspects of people working on a common vision to explore the infinite universe. Therefore, the trajectory of this reading follows this path starting from the rather neutral technological aspect towards the human dimensions of manned space missions. A starting point was the cooperation in the field of material science and biology, which were considered politically uncontroversial. During this window of opportunity, Germany and Sweden, later to become members of ESA, joined the French Soviet Russian alliance (Harvey 2021 p.55). Together, the project Bion started in 1973 to examine the behaviour of insects and animals in space. After the successful launching of this project, it seemed only a matter of time for manned space missions. Here, Harvey gives a deep insight into the preparation of the first mission of sending the first European astronaut and his Soviet cosmonaut counterpart into orbit. Considering the complexities of this programmes, the book provides a detailed explanation of scientific and political context letting those projects come into existence as tracing their implementation. Additionally, a diligent selection of visual documents helps the reader to get an impression of that time, its mindsets, challenges, and the contexts those ideas were put into practice.

Nevertheless, the space historian also leaves some space for the amusing anecdotes that have happened during the years of mutual cooperation. Might this be monkeys taking over control of a space capsule during Bion 8 (Ibid. p.59), the arrival at EuroMir of the first Austrian astronaut Franz Viehböck in 1992 accompanied by a Donauwalzer (The blue Danube) reminiscent of the movie “2001 A Space Odyssey” (Ibid. p. 190). Eventually, there is also the charming story of German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who greeted Sigmund Jähn, the first German who flew into space, from ISS at his birthday party at a small village in Saxony (ebd. p.236).

Beyond Space or the future of European-Russian Corporation

Remarkable is the story of the two cosmonauts Alexander Volkow and Sergei Krikalev. Both started their mission as Soviet citizens in 1991, just to observe political changes in their country from a very distant perspective. Both returned on March, 25th1992 as citizens of the newly founded Russian Federation (Ibid. p. 185). Both spacefarers are iconic for the changes of space cooperation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political transformation in Russia had a tremendous impact on Russians space ambitions. Suddenly, the programmes were lacking funding and resources to implement new project. Reminder of the previous corporations, Western funding gave Russia the opportunity to update its infrastructure, while European partners could build upon the reliable launching capacities in Baikonur, reducing cost to a tremendous amount (Ibid. p.304). Such a cooperation holds on, disregarding the political turbulence of Russia and the unresolved issues of Crimea. Sanction policies did not address the cooperation for the common project of ExoMars (ebd. p.338). Considering the future destinations of space missions ExoMars is the European-Russian joint project for sending a rover to Mars, for discovering its structure, giving new insights about the red planet (Ibid. p.310f.).

Exploring the origin of life on other planets serves as a mirror to reflect the life of mankind on planet Earth. Often discovering new planets is compared to colonization, yet, conversely to the time of seafarers in the time of discoverers, spacefaring is not about replacing an existing system by another one, but creating a structure totally from scratch (Joshi, 2021). Currently, new actors in space are planning to set up their own space stations, such as China with the project called Tiangong aimed to build up a permanent outpost in orbit. Projects as such are a symbol of the capabilities a nation has, and what it can achieve by showing it to the world (Lubojemski, 2021).

Concluding this voyage through the history of European-Russian cooperation, the author Brian Harvey provides one simple message, that has led to the dreams of space exploration since early days. Space projects show to the world what nations are able to achieve, achieving the sheer impossible at places, where no member of mankind has ever been before. However, those projects make visible what mankind is able to achieve, when they overcome their differences for working together, following a joint vision. Consequently, space policy serves as a tool to transcend ideologies, specifically as a “Strategy to Peace” or to give an outlook with the words of the author himself: “Space is a very visible thing to do together” (Ibid. p.378).


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