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.