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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

New Wings for the Old World: the European Space Agency's Hermes Spaceplane

Updated: Sep 6

Hermes was a European spaceplane designed to provide the European Space Agency (ESA) with independent manned access to space, including missions to space stations. Drawing inspiration from the American Space Shuttle and X-20 Dyna-Soar, Hermes would have carried a relatively small crew into orbit to carry out science missions for western Europe.

Artist's depiction of the European Hermes spaceplane concept in orbit over Europe

Artist's depiction of Hermes in orbit over Europe (ESA/David Ducros)

ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold before STS-42 in 1994
Ulf Merbold in 1992 (NASA)

Founded in 1975, the European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organization consisting of twenty-two member states, each with their own national space agencies or offices [1]. It is the combination of the western European ELDO (European Launcher Development Organization), responsible for launch vehicles, and ESRO (European Space Research Organization), responsible for satellites. In 1977, ESA recruited its first astronauts to accompany Spacelab, a reusable laboratory flown on NASA's Space Shuttle. Ulf Merbold of West Germany became the first ESA astronaut to fly in space in 1983 onboard STS-9 Columbia. However, other non-Slavic Europeans flew Soviet Interkosmos missions beforehand [2]. The Ariane family of rockets dates back to the founding of ESA and has been used to send commercial satellites into geosynchronous orbits for more than forty years.

Recognizing the strategic importance of independent manned access to space on a global scale, as well as desiring to emulate the American Space Shuttle and Soviet Buran, in the early 1980s the French space agency CNES (Centre national d'études spatiales) began investigating a small spaceplane design of its own that could launch on an Ariane rocket [3]. Since Europe already had its own family of launch vehicles, the next step in becoming a space superpower was to develop its own crewed spacecraft. Utilizing Ariane would also maintain its competitiveness on the international market. As the project rapidly progressed, CNES realized Hermes would be difficult to sustain as a solely French endeavor. The organization turned to ESA for help and it was formally recognized by the agency in 1985. ESA set a deadline of March 1987 for the "Europeanization" of the Hermes program, assigning different components to member-states while France shouldered 50% of the overall work.

Space stations were of great interest at this time as well, particularly in their ability to sustain the permanent occupation of space. Hermes would have been able to service the Columbus Man-Tended Free Flyer, a small space station built primarily by the German and Italian space industries. President Ronald Reagan's 1984 announcement of a new American space station, Freedom, open to international cooperation "bolstered the project's opportunities by creating the possibility of a lasting Euro-American partnership" (De Floris, 2020).

Hermes spaceplane docked to Columbus space station

Hermes docked to the Columbus MTFF (CNES/David Ducros)

Hermes was initially designed to carry three astronauts on missions of thirty to ninety days and to orbits of up to nearly 500 miles (800 km) in altitude. By 1984, it had developed into a miniature Space Shuttle with a crew capacity of up to six and a payload to low Earth orbit capacity of 4.5 metric tons (4,500 kg) in its cargo bay. A pressurized cargo hold sat between the crew cabin and the service module, which would have served as an adaptor to the Ariane 5 and as a docking mechanism to space stations. The crew cabin would have separated from the main vehicle in an emergency. The spaceplane itself, consisting of the crew cabin and cargo bay, would have been just over 62 feet (19 m) in length. Hermes' primary contractors were Aérospatiale, the manufacturer of the Ariane rockets, and Dassault, a major French aviation company. However, a number of significant changes were made to the vehicle following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986 to make it safer.

The crew cabin's capacity shrank back down to three and used ejection seats, no longer separating from the rest of the vehicle. Since the ejection seats added weight, the cargo bay's capacity was reduced as well, holding 3 metric tons (3,000 kg) instead of 4.5. Additionally, the cargo bay was now unable to transport satellites to and from space since its doors could not be opened. This decision again reduced the vehicle's overall weight. Hermes now consisted of two parts instead of three, the spaceplane itself and a cone-shaped resource module attached to the rear. It served the same function as the service module mentioned above and was not reusable, being jettisoned prior to reentry like the Apollo service module. Only the little spaceplane would reenter Earth's atmosphere and land. The "new" Hermes was approved by ESA in November 1987 with the initial pre-development phase lasting from 1988 to 1990. The outcome of that phase would determine the fate of the program.

Cutaway illustration of Hermes inside

Cutaway of the inside of Hermes (CNES)

Hermes launching atop an Ariane 5 rocket
Hermes launching atop an Ariane 5 (CNES/David Ducros)

Hermes was initially planned to launch on an Ariane 4 rocket, but as work on the vehicle progressed, it became too heavy to utilize that launch vehicle. Therefore, it served as a major factor in determining the specifications for the new Ariane 5 launcher. Similar to the Space Shuttle, Hermes would have been air-transported to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana atop a specially-modified Airbus A300 airliner. Mission control was located at the Toulouse Space Centre in France, although ESA Mission Control, the European Space Operations Centre, is located in Darmstadt, Germany. Space-to-ground communications would have been carried out by a then-planned European network of data relay satellites similar to NASA's TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System). Hermes would have landed at Istres-Le Tubé Air Base in Istres, France.

Aside from the same technical and financial hurdles that plague every space project, Hermes' biggest challenge was politics. First, engineering difficulties slowed the momentum of the program in 1989. The technical reconfigurations that arose post-Challenger led to significant cost inflation and inefficient management of the project's numerous components delayed the validation tests planned for late 1991. Irked by the perceived incompetence of other ESA member-states, the French Academy of Sciences published reports that were "highly unfavorable to European engagement in autonomous human spaceflight," arguing that it was detrimental to the sectors in Europe that were more connected to ground-based and uncrewed space research (De Floris, 2020). Some people in Germany even protested France's desire for leading the program, despite Hermes starting out as a solely French project.

Painting of Hermes spaceplane atop Airbus A300

Artist's depiction of Hermes atop an Airbus A300. This was painted prior to ESA's involvement, evident by the large CNES logo on Hermes (

But the politics impacting Hermes were not localized to just western Europe. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and German reunification began, slowly drawing back the Iron Curtain. This led to the reallocation of resources within the country. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed as well, creating new opportunities for international cooperation in space with previously inaccessible countries (i.e., formerly Eastern Bloc and pro-Soviet countries). In 1992, ESA decided to pause development on Hermes and implemented a year-long "reflection" period to examine if building a strictly European spacecraft was still financially and technologically feasible, or if new partnerships could be formed to share cost and development. a During this period, the agency shifted its focus for the 1990s towards Earth observation, scientific missions, and technological developments, and away from autonomous crewed spaceflight. On November 10, ESA announced a three-year "reorientation" period for the long-delayed Hermes— its maiden flight was originally planned for 1998, but slipped to an initial unmanned test in 2002 with the first manned flight in 2003— which resulted in its cancellation. No vehicles were ever built.

Europe abandoned its only attempt to establish continent-wide independent manned access to space to pursue international partnerships, first with Russia. ESA and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (RKA, the predecessor to Roscosmos), agreed to cooperate on new launch vehicles and a replacement for space station Mir. However, RKA did not have the budget to support development of either. The United States, also seeking international partners for its space station project, allied itself with Europe and Russia, along with Japan and Canada. In September 1993, America's Space Station Freedom, Europe's Columbus Man-Tended Free Flyer, and Russia's Space Station Mir-2 were consolidated into the International Space Station (ISS). ESA has since relied on the Space Shuttle, Crew Dragon, and Soyuz for access to the station. Hermes faded into obscurity with no hope of resurrection while Columbus, now a module rather than a small station, became Europe's contribution to the ISS.

1984 painting of Hermes spaceplane

Hermes' 1984 configuration (

The Hermes spaceplane was Europe's hope of gaining independent manned access to space but arose at a time when space exploration was becoming more collaborative between nations. Though remembered by some as just another failed spaceplane proposal during a sort of global "spaceplane fever" brought on by the Space Shuttle, it was responsible for the development of the Ariane 5 rocket and contributed to Europe's partnership in the International Space Station. It went down in history as the most successful failed attempt at building a manned space program of any country (yes, including Zambia).

Author's note: The political and technical challenges were far more complex than how I wrote them to be, so if you're interested in learning more about why Hermes failed, I highly recommend Paul Drye's piece on the program (in the bibliography below). As always, thanks for reading and be sure to like and share!


[1] With the exceptions of Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Ireland, whose space activities are governed by other state organizations.

[2] The first non-Soviet and non-American person in space was Vladímir Remek of Czechoslovakia in 1977 onboard Soyuz 28. He was followed by Mirosław Hermaszewski of Poland (Soyuz 30, 1978) and Sigmund Jähn of East Germany (Soyuz 31, 1978). The first western European to fly in space was French spationaute Jean-Loup Chrétien onboard Soyuz T-6 in 1982. So, although Merbold was the first ESA astronaut, he was not the first European/western European in space. France and later Britain were the only European countries to have partnerships with both the American and Soviet space agencies.

[3] CNES was founded in 1961, making it the world's third oldest space agency.



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