Part 5 - A marvellous Christmas present
Monday, 24 December, 12:00 local time. The launch sequence started as usual early in the morning with the retraction of the gantry. At 08:30 the COEL requested a hold. He had a problem with a helium ground valve and tried to fix it.
H0 was postponed to 13:30 local time. We finally arrived at the automatic sequence. At H–2 minutes, 14 seconds, there was a hold caused by the launch vehicle. A cryogenic valve that one of the computers was supposed to close was reported open.
Through some special manoeuvres, the crew found that the valve was correctly closed. It was the position transducer that had failed and gave the wrong signal to the computer. But with this signal, the computer refused to continue. Taking one hour, the crew tried to solve the problem and finally worked out a remedy.
They had to fool the computer, but they had to be precise and quick, replacing the wrong signal with an adequate one at the right moment during the sequence. They were ready to try it. It was our very last chance. The DDO was in a hurry. He entered immediately into the Automatic Sequence which resulted in the new odd H0 of 14:14:38 local time. The tension was at its maximum.
I watched the countdown clock and listened into my earphone. We passed H–3 minutes. And then suddenly I hear Pierre Perez shouting, “Vas-y Gaston.” I will never forget this in my life. I was waiting for the clock to stop. But the clock continued running. It had worked! The clock passed minus two minutes, minus one minute and the DDO started to count: “10, 9, 8, …fire!”
We saw smoke coming out from under the vehicle and three seconds later the vehicle lifted off from the pad climbing up slowly first and then flying faster and faster. Some visitors behind us started to applaud, but this was premature. The important events were yet to come. But Ariane made a perfect flight and, on top of that, reached its orbit with an incredible precision.
When the DDO announced the end of the flight and the end of his mission, the visitors rose from their chairs and cheered. We in the Control Room embraced each other and patted shoulders. You can imagine what was going on in the blockhouse of Mr Merdrignac.
From about three o’clock onwards, you could observe an immense crowd of people rolling towards the huge assembly hall in order to gather there for the big launch party. There was an indescribable atmosphere of joy in this hall. All the fatigue, all the stress, all the pressure had fallen from them and had turned into joy, pure joy.
People that had never met before, although working on the same programme, embraced, shook hands, slapped each other on the shoulders. It was the birth of the human Ariane family. Not a few had tears of joy in their eyes. It was a kind of feast which I have never seen again in my life.
It was also Christmas Eve and all the people that were involved in this success had offered a marvellous Christmas present to Europe.
See Part 6 - The Ariane 'success' story
For more information:
Interviews about Ariane with key figures of the European space programme can be found at ESA's Oral History web site. They are: Frédéric D'Allest, Michel Bignier, Peter Creola, Hubert Curien, Bernard Deloffre, Roy Gibson, Klaus Iserland, Guy Kramer, Raymond Orye and Yves Sillard.