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Our Lady Collegiate church in Vernon
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Vernon half-timbered houses
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The Old Mill in Vernon
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Monet's house and garden at Giverny
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The XIIth c. castle keep in Vernon
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Visits, indeed, but there are so many other things to do in Vernon
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Museums in Vernon (paintings by Monet) and Giverny
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Tourelles castle in Vernon
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From German V-2s to the Ariane rocket :
65 years of space research in Vernon

What an unexpected headline that many readers will find misleading! What, Vernon one of the leading French and  European centres of the space industry? This must be a joke!
Well, it is not and we are going to prove it.

The Ariane rocket [1]

The story begins at the end of World War II. In May 1945, the French government decided to acquire the space technologies that the Germans had just developed, particularly that of the V-2 rocket.

Within a few months a first group of thirty German engineers working in this domain was recruited. The problem then was to know where they could be established.
Now, there happened to be a large military camp - previously used as an ammunition depot in the forest above the city - that was empty at the time

It was finally decided that the Laboratoire de Recherches Balistiques et Aérodynamiques (LRBA) (Laboratory for Ballistic and Aerodynamics Research) which had just been created in May 1946 would settle in these unused buildings.

A final impulse for the laboratory to start efficient work came with the arrival of a second group of German engineers and technicians recruited among the former staff of Peenemünde and Friedrichshafen.

Among them, we can name Heinz Bringer, who will later invent the Viking engine for the Ariane booster, Helmut Haberman, a specialist of magnetic bearings, and Otto Muller, specialised in guiding systems.

Notice that, contrary to what used to be said locally at the time, these men were not war prisoners forced into working for their former enemies, but regular employees with a work contract.


Earliest research (4211 and 4212 projects)

In August 1946 the laboratory began developing a series of medium-range missiles derived from GermanV2 and A9 rockets. This was to have been the 'Super V-2' with a range of 3,600 km and a pay load of 1,000 kg. But as early as May 1947 the problems connected with the first stage were so considerable that the project was cancelled. However Super V-2 had shown the way and made it possible to move to a new project.


The 'Direction des Etudes et Fabrication d'Armement' (A government office in charge of new weapons) decided to build a sounding rocket in order to study
* the in-flight operation of a liquid powered rocket engine
* the upper atmosphere above an altitude of 65 km.

This was project 4213 called Veronique, short for VERnon-électrONIQUE.

Numerous launches were performed - with many failures at the beginning ! - in various sites (Suippes, in central eastern France, Cardonnet, in southern France, Hammaguir in the Sahara, finally Kourou in Guyana after 1968) and the development program ended in 1975. (One of the first launches, the one on April 6, 1951 was even performed in Vernon.)
Take an example: 22 1961-model Veronique rockets were launched from Hammaguir and Kourou between1964 and 1975 with a 90% success rate.
Around 1955, while continuing research on Veronique, the laboratory began developing a 'super Veronique': this will be Vesta, with a payload of 500 kg at an altitude of 400 km.


61-type veronique [2]

R-type Veronique [3]

Vesta [4]
One should not imagine that Vernon was the only space research centre in France. However the Vernon site was often chosen for testing engines developed by other French firms. This is the case with the Eole rocket (EA 1946), one test of which spectacularly failed : the older inhabitants of Vernon remember the violent explosion that killed three persons; its light was so intense that it could be seen 40 km away and the rumour quickly spread that there had been a nuclear explosion up there in the forest !!!

Eole EA 1946 [5]

From Véronique to Ariane

General de Gaulle caused a fundamental change to the research programme when he decided to develop long-range missiles for the French nuclear deterrent force.
After the December 1960 law concerning long-term military equipment, it was decided on December 18, 1961 to develop the 'Diamant' (Diamond) rocket, weighing 18 tons. The first launch took place on November 26,1965 and placed A1, the first French satellite, into orbit. The first stage of the rocket was fitted with four Vexin B engines designed in Vernon.
In the meantime, European governments had decided to build a European launcher. Since France was having success with the Diamant rocket, it was chosen as the leading country. These decisions were to bring about changes in the Vernon centre: its military and commercial activities were split: the laboratory concentrating on military activities while a private industrial enterprise, the Société Européenne de Propulsion (SEP) (European Propulsion Society) was created and put in charge of developing the new boosters of the Ariane rocket. By the way, regarding the administrative side of the enterprise, note that SEP was absorbed by SNECMA in 1997, and in 2005 the latter merged with Sagem to become SAFRAN.

[6] [7]
Test stands in Vernon

As to the 'Laboratoire de Recherches Balistiques et Aérodynamiques', it  concentrated on four domains : strategic missile systems, tactical missile systems, navigation and mission preparation systems, four activities which were carried out "up there in the forest" until December 2013, whne the Laboratory closed down.


The first flight (LO1), a qualification flight, took successfully place on December 24, 1979 and the first commercial flight in September 1982.

As it passes to a much larger scale than the previous rockets, the Ariane launcher - or rather its different versions -seems to belong less and less to the Vernon site. Granted, all the parts of this rocket are made in numerous sites and countries; the engines, however, are designed, made and tested on the 116 hectares of the Vernon plant with a staff of about 1,200.


100th Ariane launch, October 29, 2000

In 1973, France was the only country, apart from the USA, that had ever built a cryogenic engine powered with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Within the context of the Ariane programme, three test stands were built in Vernon especially for cryogenic technical tests.
The whole program cost 87 million francs ( 13 million € approx.)

The first Viking engine, developed from 1973 onward, had a thrust of 40 tons and is at the origin of various successive versions, either more and more powerful or specially adapted for the rocket second stage.. In the summer of 1999, the Vernon SEP plant celebrated its 1,000th Viking engine.



Above and right : Vilking engines

But the engineers had to look further and design the Vulcain engine for Ariane 5 main stage and the HM7B for the upper stage. These cryogenic engines utilise liquid oxygen and hydrogen as propellants, and of course, designing and optimisation was carried out on the Vernon test stands.

Vulcain 2, in production since March 2005 [12]

In 2009, these engines made  way for the Vinci which was developed . This engine features the ability to be re-ignited four times so as to place several satellites on different orbits. And, who knows, it might one day be re-ignited for a soft landing on the Moon…

Sudies are beeing carried out to  define the next generation rocket, Ariane 6. A smaller rocket capable of launching a single satellite of 3 to 6.5 tonnes is under initial consideration. A possible design would utilise the Vega first stage and the Ariane Vinci engine. In 2012 detailed definition studies were funded and  fiknal decision will be taken in 2014.

Have you noticed its name ? Vinci. Like all the other engines from the distant time of the Veronique rocket until today, its name begins with a V, a reminder of the name of the city where it is built.

Visits : for security reasons, the SAFRAN site in Vernon is not open to visitors except on very exceptional occasions.