Sunday, June 03, 2018

Seven reasons to love French aerospace

One of the happiest months of my life was when I rented an apartment in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, so that I could do some work in the archives of the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget. Every morning I'd go down to the boulangerie on the ground floor of my apartment building for fresh pain and delight in the simple pleasure of perfect bread and butter. I may not have spent quite as much time in the archives as I intended, but what the hell.

Here are a few reasons to love French aerospace.

1. Asterix 1

Asterix 1. Image source: unknown.
When France launched Asterix 1 on a Diamant rocket from Algeria in 1965, it became the third nation in space. Asterix 1 is named for the plucky Gallic bande dessinee character who successfully holds the Roman invaders at bay against all the odds. His namesake, the sub-conical striped-and-antennaed satellite, is quite simply super-cute, and one of my all-time favourites.

Image source: author.

2. Alexandre Ananoff

While working in the archives, I became aware of an influential French space visionary. The name Alexandre Ananoff (1910 - 1992) came up over and over again. He wrote about the mechanics of spaceflight, the kinds of spaceships we might see in the future, and social aspects of space exploration. This article, by Pierre-Francois Mouriaux and Philippe Varnoteaux, appraises his contribution to French space exploration. They say:
A. Ananoff was a real ambassador for astronautics and a pioneer in space education for the general public—probably the first one in France.
In addition, he advised Herge about aspects of spaceflight for the two Tintin volumes where the boy adventurer goes to the Moon.

3. Tintin walks on the Moon

Image source:
To be honest, I wasn't interested in Tintin as a child, and don't have any memory of the books being around. But when I became aware, as an adult, that Tintin had travelled to the Moon, that was a different story! Objectif Lune and On a marche sur la Lune (Objective Moon and We have walked on the Moon) tell the story of Tintin and Co's encounter with rocket scientists and spies at the central European launch site in the mythical country of Syldavie and their journey to the Moon on a very V2-like rocket. As far as I can tell, it's one of the earliest depictions of footprints on the Moon.

4. Kourou

Image source: Guyane Evasion
Kourou, in French Guiana, is where the launch site of the European Space Agency is located. It has an excellent museum and a huge amount of spaceflight history. I spent a week there in 2005, also working in the archives. I touched a rocket in the assembly building, and perhaps a tiny portion of my DNA survived launch and is now in space! (Stop having a conniption, this was not a clean room situation). I also visited the famous Iles de Salut, where best-selling author and escapologist Papillon was incarcerated. I didn't see an actual launch, although I did sit in the control room viewing area and imagine the hum and chatter when it was full of people. Every day I sipped Ti-punch and thought, read and talked space.  It was fabulous.

5. Cool space words

One day, as my plane descended into Adelaide airport, I noticed a plane without wings lying in the grass near the runway. Oh, I thought, it looks like a rocket. Then I realised. Fusee - the French word for rocket -  is the same root as fuselage, commonly used to describe the body of a plane. D'oh.

The cool wordage doesn't stop there, though. My friend Alexandre Ananoff has a word for spaceship: Astronef. This, I think, it the same root as navy, and the French word for space shuttle is navette.

Scaphandre is space suit, also used for diving suit. To me, it has a Homeric ring. Or it could be a character in Aeon Flux

French has a word for landing and taking off FOR EACH PLANET AND MOON. This is beyond cool, a new galactic level of cool. You've possibly heard the terrestrial version of these words if you've flown a French airline - aterrissage. Terre is Earth, and aterrissage is landing on the Earth. Alunissage is landing on the Moon, and amarsissage is landing on Mars. In a future multi-planet solar system economy, the precision of these terms could be very useful. 

6. Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace, Paris

Just check out these babies. Image source: Capcom Espace
This museum, located at Le Bourget in Paris, is amazing. I don't pay much attention to the aeroplane side of it, to be honest, but as well as all the aerospace you could want, there are BALLOONS. Yes, balloons. This is not a Monty Python drill: you can learn all about the golden age of French ballooning right here. Asterix 1 is there too. And there's all the French animals in space: spiders, kittens, rats. One of the things I love about this museum is that we're so used to seeing US-dominated space material culture. It really is striking when you see another national style of technology, and a useful reminder to remain critical of US space hegemony.

7. Le Petit Prince

By Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Continuing the entanglement of air and space, this classic work of children's literature was published in 1943 and is still a favourite with kids across the world. It's really a moral tale, but it has the enchanting conceit of tiny planets or asteroids which grow roses. It was illustrated by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. 

The little prince says:
I love listening to stars at night. It sounds like a hundred million bells.