More than 40

years ago, France


the third nation to launch a satellite using its own rocket,

a first step toward

establishing itself as Europe’s expert in launch vehicles.

On Nov. 26, 1965, France launched the 45-kilogram Asterix 1 test satellite aboard

its Diamant rocket from the Hammaguir launch base in

Algeria. The Diamant

was based on ballistic missile technology, similar to

launch vehicles developed by the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Diamant grew out of the

Gemstones program, which began in 1959

. Run by a state-owned research and development company


Gemstones consisted of five different designs

one- and two-stage test launch vehicles, dubbed

Agate, Topaze, Emeraude, Rubis and Saphir.

In late 1960, SEREB sent the French armed forces minister a report stating that

“a craft able to place a satellite weighing 50 kilograms into Earth orbit is achievable,” according to the French space agency, CNES, Web site.

In May 1962, CNES, which had been founded only a year earlier,

signed an agreement with the military’s Ministerial Delegation for Armaments to develop an orbital launch vehicle – the Diamant.

With funding from CNES,

the Ministerial Delegation for Armaments managed development of the launcher and satellite

, while SEREB served as


contractor, the CNES Web site said.

The first version of the rocket

, Diamant-A, was essentially a repackaging

of the already-reliable two-stage Saphir rocket. Saphir had failed only twice in

15 launch

attempts, according to the Encyclopedia Astronautix Web site. Using both of the Saphir’s two stages, SEREB

then replaced the

payload with a P064 third stage, which initially had been

tested on a Rubis test rocket.

The Diamant-A followed its first successful launch with three more launches, flying for the

final time

in February 1967

The next-generation rocket,


-B, on which CNES served as

prime contractor,


different first

and third stages

and achieved more thrust than its predecessor, according to the EncylopediaAstronautix and RussiaSpaceWeb. The first Diamant-B launched March 10, 1970, from the newly opened Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

Of the f

ive Diamant-B rockets

launched, two


The last Diamant-B launched

in December 1971


The final Diamant rocket, the Diamant-B P4, began development in 1972. But two years later, before the latest launch

vehicle had been completed, CNES canceled the program citing funding issues.


had committed to helping develop a pan-European launch vehicle – what would become Ariane – and could not fund both programs, the CNES Web site said.

However, CNES decided to go ahead with the already

scheduled manifest, and

the Diamant-B P4

successfully launched

three times between February and September of 1975.

Ultimately, CNES’

experience in developing the Diamant led to its


by the European Space Agency as the prime contractor on the Ariane 1

– Europe’s workhorse rocket. CNES based the technical design for Ariane on the Diamant, according to the CNES and NASA History Web sites.

Work on the Ariane 1 rocket, which was two-thirds funded by France, began in 1974. The Ariane 1 first launched

Dec. 24, 1979, from the Guiana Space Center.