Site map

Site update log

About this site

About the author



Searching for details:

The author of this page will appreciate comments, corrections and imagery related to the subject. Please contact Anatoly Zak.



Baby steps: First French experiments with rocketry


A legend has it that at the beginning of the 20th century Russian pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky debated future of space exploration with French aviator Robert Esnault-Pelterie in the presence of the Czar. Although both "participants" of this "debate" later refuted the story, Esnault-Pelterie, who started his career by building the first monoplane aircraft, went on to pioneer rocket development in France.

On June 8, 1927, Robert Esnault-Pelterie outlined promise and challenges of space travel before the Societe Astronomique, the organization founded by Camille Flammarion. It was published in a form of a book a year later.

As many other space pioneers, Esnault-Pelterie quickly concentrated on luqiud-propellant rockets, experimenting with tetra-nitromethane. In 1931, a rocket explosion left Esnault-Pelterie without fingers on his left hand. At the same time, the accident, apparently caught the attention of the French Air Ministry. (213) From 1934, the government provided modest funding along with the usual veil of secrecy. (148)

Along with Henri F. Melot, Esnault-Pelterie worked on both solid and liquid-propellant rockets. Before World War II and following German invasion of France interrupted this work, Esnault-Pelterie and Colonel Jean-Jacques Barre of the Artillery Technical Service developed a rocket engine burning a mix of gasoline and liquid oxygen and capable of producing 300 kilograms of thrust for 55 seconds. (213).

EA 1941

During the occupation by Germany, the Vichy government in France secretly funded the development of a liqiud-propellant missile, known as EA 1941 (EA41). Along with Esnault-Pelterie and Barre, Colonel Joseph Dubouloz led the project, which grew out of the experience accumulated during the 1930s.

The project reached static engine tests in November 1941, however the actual flight tests did not take place until 1945, after the liberation of France. Then, several flights were conducted with mixed results, however during the fifth launch, on July 6, 1945, the EA 1941 climbed as high as 30 kilometers.

The project paved the way to further French research in the field of rocketry during the 1950s.

Rocket-powered planes

To develop its rocket engine capabilities, in 1944 France created SEPR - Société d'Etudes pour la Propulsion par Réaction, specialized in research on rocket propulsion for aircraft.

The Espadon, an aircraft powered by a jet engine plus an SEPR rocket engine for takeoff and combat, made its first flight in 1952.

Throughout the fifties, various SEPR engines were tested on a number of experimental planes, including the Trident I and II, Gerfaut, Mystère, Durandal, Mirage I, and others.

On May 2, 1958, test pilot Roger Carpentier set a new world altitude record, flying his Trident II to 24,217 meters. But by the end of the decade, the concept behind the Trident II - a main rocket engine combined with low-thrust jet engines - had made a U-turn: the Mirage III featured a main jet engine and a booster rocket for interception.

While the Trident II never made it into production, the Mirage IIIC, powered by the Snecma Atar 9B plus a SEPR 844, would be chosen by six air forces and over 300 would be built. First deployed in 1959, the Mirage III remained in service until the 1980s.




A 100-kliogram EA 1941 rocket could deliver 25 kilograms of cargo to a range of 100 kilometers. Click to enlarge: 172 by 400 pixels / 28K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak