It was was pure coincidence that The Spectator should have landed itself with our own space correspondent — me — as chance witness to the launch of Europe’s first trip to the Moon last Sunday morning.
I was visiting an old friend who now works in IT support at the European Space Agency’s headquarters in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt. That same weekend, take-off of Arianespace’s flight 162 from Kourou, French Guiana, to Nowhere had been rescheduled to 00.03 GMT on 28 September.
Arianespace is a sort of Tomorrow’s World parcels service. Flight 162 would be carrying three packages: an Indian satellite and a European broadband satellite, both for orbit around the Earth, and the European Space Agency’s Smart-1 satellite for orbit around the Moon. Once beyond the strong pull of Earth, Smart-1 was to journey alone to the Moon, and under its own power.
‘I’m on call, but why not join the press corps?’ said Peter. ‘There’ll be excellent hospitality.’ I did.
Situated in the woods outside Darmstadt, the ESA’s German headquarters is a world of its own. The site is open and green, the big modern control rooms spacious and light. English is the lingua franca and it’s a friendly place — like a high-security science university. Screens flicker, people sit at great arcs of computer screens, pictures of rockets glow from the walls and silence reigns, save for the squeak of plimsolls on clean vinyl and the faint susurration of ventilators.
There is serenity in science. Only the litter of fag-ends on barbecue-sized ashtrays outside the entrances reminded me that earthlings were involved. So did a discussion overheard between staff devising schemes to outsmart the security barriers that blocked mere operatives from the free nosh in the press suite.
‘We’ve a major space project already under way,’ said Peter as he took me on a tour that morning. ‘Mars Express left for the planet in August. It arrives on 25 December. The Mars lander is called Beagle. If all goes well this Christmas morning, we’ll be able to announce, “The Beagle has landed.”’
There was subtler humour as the media corps gathered around at nine that night. ESA had laid on an evening’s entertainment, which was charmingly unpompous and often funny. After a short talk on Smart-1’s mission to discover — by camera, radiography and infrared spectrometry — what the Moon is made of, our lecturer conceded that there were many theories. On to the giant video screen flickered Wallace and Gromit go to the Moon, in which the folksy hero and his dog hammer together their own rocket (decorating the interior with flowered wallpaper) and, carrying cream crackers, blast off to discover that the mysterious body is indeed made of cheese.
Later, as the approach of 00.03 GMT sharpened journalists’ expectations, high seriousness was again punctured with a screening of the 1902 silent movie A Voyage to the Moon based on Jules Verne’s novel. Blurred men in top-hats and women in petticoats clambered from a sort of mega-bullet onto a Gothic landscape, accompanied by urgent piano music.
Our ESA hosts betrayed neither the philistinism nor the arrogance sometimes associated with science. Not far from the screen showing the great white waiting rocket, rising with a kind of calm grace above the tropical forest, was a grand piano in dark wood. Lit by candelabra, the pianist Julian Evans introduced his programme in a reassuring Welsh accent. Debussy’s Clair de Lune was no less moving for being an obvious choice. Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude, a sort of hymn to nature, surprised me with its passion. I hope it is not thoughtlessly anti-American to say that I doubt Nasa would have organised things thus. I felt proud of the way this very European fanfare for science was unafraid of humour and comfortable with the presence of art. ESA were celebrating a grand event without grandiosity.
But the evening was more than recreational. I was fascinated by the lecture on Smart-1’s revolutionary new means of propulsion. In the vacuum of outer space a craft can be moved only by momentum, by gravity or by jet. Conventional jets must take oxygen for combustion. Heavy fuel and oxygen tanks eat into the pay-load. Smart-1, however, uses charged ions for propulsion: a kind of non-combustion electric jet.
Tried only once before in space, the system has been developed by a team led by the Swedish Space Corporation. The engine pushes itself forward by a backwards expulsion of particles charged from the craft’s solar-panel ‘wings’. In frictionless outer space this faintest of thrusts can achieve gradual but remorseless acceleration. It will take Smart-1 some 16 months to reach the Moon whereas a combustion rocket can get there in days, but the non-combustion engine needs only a fraction of the baggage.
Testing the electric jet is a big part of this mission. The technology is small, light and cheap. Smart-1 weighs no more than a small car and costs about a million euros. It resembles a washing-machine with 40-metre wings. Still, this was a very precious washing-machine, and you could see the tension on the face of Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director-general of ESA, as midnight approached. Nor would a successful Ariane launch end his anxieties. The rocket is not ESA’s responsibility. ESA would take charge (and here at Darmstadt take the controls) only some 45 minutes after take-off from Earth, on the launch in space of Smart-1 from the Ariane rocket.
At the 11th hour — 11.55 p.m. — came an agonising stop as the digital clock turned from green to red and the count-down was suspended, seven minutes before zero, to rebalance Ariane’s fuel and oxygen tanks. Some kind of a pause had been bargained for, but if this took too long, the launch would miss its astro-physical window. Midnight GMT passed. At 00.02 the clock went green again and the countdown resumed: 5-4-3-2-1 and, as the French say, ‘toc’.
Toc. There was an earsplitting roar. A pillar of pure light climbed like some latter-day angel into the Guianese night. Scattered applause gave way to renewed tension. Was the rocket’s path right? It was. Would the separations of (first) the Indian and (second) the broadband satellite go according to plan? They did.
A man in a preposterous toupee walked across the media hall. We can send men to the Moon, it seems, but science has yet to contrive a realistic hairpiece.
With the rocket arcing skywards, it would soon be time for Smart-1’s mission to be born. By now we could monitor but we could not see or show: we had only words. ‘Successful separation’ came almost as an anticlimax. We clapped, drank champagne and went home to bed before dawn.
I will remember the pillar of light, the little washing-machine and the beautiful piano solo. I thought, watching the pianist’s hands skate and dance across the keyboard as here on Earth the candles flickered and there in space Smart-1 spread her solar wings, that human genius is a many-splendoured thing.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.