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(Historical context for the events described in this section):
1958 April: the French nuclear programme advances far enough for Félix Gaillard, then President of the Atomic Energy Commission to sign a top-secret order to make all necessary preparations "for the first series of atomic explosions to take place in the first quarter of 1960."
1958 June: Charles de Gaulle returns to power in France, quickly ordering the creation of "Force de Frappe," or strike force, including a nuclear "triad:" a long-range bombers, land-absed ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines.
1960 February: France conducts its first nuclear test at Reggane (in the Sahara)
Technological lineage of the "precious stones" series of rockets:
Several generations of French research rockets shown from left to right: Rubis, Dragon, Centaure, Belier, Veronique and EA 1941. Click to enlarge: 229 by 400 pixels / 40K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
The Rubis rocket. Click to enlarge: 189 x 500 pixels / 56K Copyright: © 2005 Anatoly Zak
The payload section of the Rubis rocket containing scientific instruments. Click to enlarge: 300 by 400 pixels / 48K Copyright: © 2005 Anatoly Zak
A three-stage Tibere research rocket, capable of reaching the altitude of 150 kilometers, flew twice in 1971 and 1972, testing the warhead reentry technology for the ONERA research organization. Click to enlarge: 205 by 400 pixels / 24K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
The experimental warhead (reentry vehicle) of the Saphir rocket. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak
The Emeraude rocket sitting on the launch pad in Hammaguir shortly before launch on May 13, 1965. Credit: CNES
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On its own: Politics of the French space program
In 1958, Charles de Gaulle, the hero of the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II, returned to power in France. His ascent to presidency of the Fifth Republic was backdropped by Soviet victories in the race with the United States to reach the outer space.
In the face of the technological and military prowess of the USSR, Gaullists argued, France would be too naive in depending on the United States for protection. At the same time, on the political front, military power and advanced technology promised to boost the country's prestige. As a result, de Gaulle committed the nation to full technological independence from the United States, including complex and expensive fields of nuclear technology and rocketry. Decades later, this decision turned out to be crucial in making France a significant player in space exploration.
To the delight of the Kremlin, de Gaulle also distanced France from military alliance with NATO, which, in turn, led to increased ties with Moscow, including a diverse space cooperation.
Building the team: Organization of the French rocket development
In 1960, the French government made a major step toward its nuclear and space goals by consolidating industrial infastructure to form SEREB (Societe d'Etude et de Realisation des Engins Balistiques). The organization was tasked with the development of the ballistic missile technology.
To pave the way toward the nuclear capable rockets, SEREB developed and launched a series of 47 progressively more complex rockets named after various precious stones.
Precious stones series of rockets