Saturday, February 15, 2014

Re-using Ariane first stage - The live test

In mid 1981, ESA approved the funding for a real recovery exercise to be performed in mid 1982 during Ariane 5th or 6th flight. An order for an Ariane interstage 1-2 including the parachute system was placed to Fokker Aerospace in The Netherlands.

Fokker was at that time the prime contractor for the Ariane interstages. The main parachutes were made by Irvin in UK, while Autoflug, Germany, provided the drogue parachutes and control box.
Fokker delivered the special interstage in mid 1982 and the parachute system added an additional 850kg to the launch vehicle.The test was now scheduled to be part of Ariane flight L07.

Unfortunately, in September 1982, the failure of Ariane 5th flight (L05) and loss of its first commercial payload put the program on hold and impacted the launch manifest. Flight L07 was now due to carry an Intelsat V, whose weight precluded carriage of parachutes.
The parachute live test was first postponed to the 11th mission, due mid 1984. This was changed again and the flight of the next Ariane 1 (V-14) was picked instead.

At last

On July 2nd 1985, a recovery barge and a tugboat came all the way from Hamburg, Germany to the recovery zone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. At the Kourou space center in French Guiana 350kms away, the Ariane 1 rocket rose up into the sky and 149 seconds after launch, the staging operation went as planned and the 1st stage started its free fall toward the recovery ships.
However, the parachutes system did not work out and the 1st stage crashed loudly into the sea. The recovery live test was a failure.
That evening, while cheering to the successful launch of the rocket’s payload, the probe Giotto, ESA announced that a new recovery test will be planned asap.

However, a series of dramatic failures would soon stormed the western space industry during the following months. Two Ariane flights would go wrong in September 1985 (V-15) and in May 1986 (V-18). The Space Shuttle would be grounded after the Challenger disaster in Early 1986 and in April 1986, a Titan 34D would destroyed its launch pad.

Gaining back launcher reliability was now more important than reducing costs for the commercial launch market. So, the second recovery test was scrubbed as the Ariane 4 development programme was winding-up for a maiden flight in 1988.

References :

  • ESA Bulletin nr 39 pp19 - Feb 1982 -
  • FLIGHT International - 17 April 1982 - Fokker makes Ariane a parachute

Images are my personal thought of what could have been the recovery scene. Based on New Scientist - 6 May 1982 - Down to earth rocket