30 Years Ago, the ESA Almost Built Their Own Space Shuttle, Details Inside

It's not often we run into a spaceship concept we've straight up never seen before. But every so often, something long forgotten from the very fringes of science and engineering makes itself known to us. When this happens, we have two choices. Spotlight the design for all the world to see, or ignore it and let it fade even further into obscurity. Safe to say, the European Space Agency's Hermes shuttle is one we don't want to be forgotten.
Hermes Spacecraft 14 photos
Photo: European Space Agency
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It's hard to fathom the ESA venturing on their own to build a human-crewed, re-useable space vehicle that didn't involve NASA or their own Space Shuttle. But we'll be darned. It came far closer to reality than most NASA junkies realize. Today, let's tell the story of the ESA's Hermes reusable space plane, the pint-sized Euro shuttle that could have flown alongside Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor.

In many ways, the history of the European Space Agency parallels that of NASA. In the same way, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the ESA has its roots in a primordial organization called the European Space Research Organization (ESRO). Established in 1964, the group consisted of the national air and space research groups of western Europe's most powerful nations in aerospace manufacturing.

Some of the more powerful nations in this alliance had the ability to operate more or less autonomously among their international colleagues. These high-ranking nations had the ability to start their own bespoke research initiatives independently of the rest of the member states. The most notable among this group had to be the French Centre National D'études Spatiales (CNES). Their particularly spirited ambitions to operate without the help of NASA aided greatly in the development of the Ariane launch system in 1973.

As one of the first non-American or Soviet commercial satellite launch systems, the Ariane 1 was nothing short of a game changer. With five powerful Viking-5 liquid rocket engines between its first and second stages and 623,157 lbs (2,771.940 kN) of thrust on offer, the Ariane 1 slotted well into the same role Soviet Soyuz and American Delta rockets in launching satellites into geosynchronous low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Hermes Space Shuttle
Photo: André Cros
But deep down, by the time of the ESA's founding in 1975, their engineers knew the Ariane platform had a much higher performance ceiling than a few LEO weather or spy satellites. In their heart of hearts, ESA engineers craved to develop something along the lines of what they'd been hearing NASA was up to at that time. Of course, the Space Shuttle Enterprise atmospheric test bed for the American shuttle program made its first test flight only a year later.

Two proposals ultimately came across the desks of ESA's top brass. One for a traditional pressurized crew capsule a la the Apollo Command and Service Module, and one for a fully reusable human-crewed space plane similar in concept to that of the American Space Shuttle orbiters. It'd take until 1985 for a formal decision to be made on what direction to take the project. But in the end, the lauded French aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale was chosen to build what became known as Hermes.

The more petrolhead minded among us might remember Aérospatiale as the team behind the carbon fiber chassis for the Bugatti EB110. Their other claims to fame include the Dauphin multirole helicopter and being one-half of the team behind the Concorde supersonic passenger airliner. So to say, a team of amateurs, this group was clearly not. As the primary contractor for Hermes, Aérospatiale was flanked by the Dassault-Breguet group. Today, they're known as Dassault Aviation.

Famous for their Mirage and later Rafael line of fighters, Dassault was perfectly suited to the task of working out the aerodynamics and the makeup of the Hermes' all-important heat shield. On the booster rocket side of things, the pan-European group which developed the Ariane 1 all merged into the Arianespace group in 1980. Their job was to construct a novel heavy-launch booster vehicle capable of doing what the American Shuttle's SRBs and main engines did.

Hermes Space Shuttle
Photo: European Space Agency
What resulted was the Ariane 5. Using a mixture of solid and liquid rocket propellant, this flagship of the ESA's fleet jetted 1,590,000 lbs (7,080 kN) of thrust at launch. Ariane 5's two stages were powered by particularly beefy Vulacain engines and could theoretically lift Hermes' 21,000 kg (46,000 lb) airframe with a 3,000 kg (6,600 lb) payload in tow, including astronauts. But just as the ESA began formulating a final design, the tragic loss of the American Shuttle Challenger threw a monkey wrench into proceedings.

Questions on why ejection seats were starkly absent from the doomed STS 51-L mission plagued media investigations into the incident. These questions were simply too big to ignore for the ESA, who promptly redesigned the six-person cabin to instead accommodate a three-person team with a dedicated ejection seat for each crew member. Additionally, a completely novel rear-mounted Resource Module was designed to be mounted at the shuttle's rear.

Like the Service Module on the Apollo Spacecraft, this Resource Module would double as extra living space for astronauts while also housing space for storage and scientific experiments while the bulk of the cargo was stored in an unpressurized rear compartment. This module would be jettisoned before re-entry, which ultimately meant the craft wouldn't be 100 percent reusable. As part of the first phase of a two-part development cycle due to end in 1990, Hermes' cockpit was designed with a litany of liquid crystal displays and digital readouts where there might have once been gauges and dials.

Like the Space Shuttle, which was the first ever to do so, Hermes was due to use a fly-by-wire system that replaced mechanical flight and throttle controls with wireless systems operated by low-latency input sensors and actuators. With the fuel and life support reserves to operate in space anywhere from 30 to 90 days, the ESA hoped to be operating Hermes in LEO alongside the Space Shuttle by the mid-1990s or possibly the early 2000s.

Hermes Space Shuttle
Photo: European Space Agency
The first phase of the Hermes design study didn't finish until 1991, by which time only a few non-functional mockups had been constructed. Had the Soviet Union not fallen at almost exactly the same time, it's possible Hermes could have seen a functioning atmospheric test model vis-à-vis like Space Shuttle Enterprise before 1995. But the day the Iron Curtain fell forever, the future of the entire Hermes program was immediately in doubt.

Before long, the post-Soviet Russian Roscosmos agreed to team up with NASA to merge their next-gen space station program into the International Space Station. When the ESA was absorbed into that whole affair, it rendered any form of European shuttle essentially pointless. Interestingly, the ESA's Columbus Space Station Concept, which Hermes could have potentially docked with, was also canceled in 1991. Its design was integrated into the ISS in 2008.

In the end, it's doubtful in hindsight that Hermes could have ever gotten off the ground. But at the time, the ESA had every intention of challenging NASA's supremacy in space. But as all global space agencies learned post-1991, the whole space travel business works best when every nation contributes something. Meanwhile, the Ariane 5 launch vehicle designed for Hermes went on to be the halo vehicle of the ESA fleet.

A rocket that, as recently as 2021, was launching multi-billion dollar American space telescopes to well past LEO with uncanny precision. By virtue of launching the James Webb Space Telescope, it's hard to call the fruits of the Hermes project a total failure.

If there were ever a silver lining for a failed spacecraft initiative, that's a pretty darn good one. Meanwhile, you can still check out a 1/7th scale model of the Hermes shuttle on display at the Aéroport de Bordeaux-Mérignac in Bordeaux, France.

Hermes Space Shuttle
Photo: European Space Agency
Check back soon for more spacecraft profiles here on autoevolution.
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