The Political Failure of ELDO

But in parallel with this crisis, another was developing; this time within the British Government. ELDO had been set up by the Conservative Government under Macmillan, and Douglas Home, Macmillan’s successor, was not in office long enough to bring about any major policy changes. The new Labour Government under Harold Wilson took a very different view of the organisation, aided by the Civil Service, who had always been opposed to ELDO, and saw their chance to cancel it. The Treasury memo on space to the new Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, in 1964 is an interesting read (it is reproduced in its entirety in Appendix A)16.

Part of Wilson’s rhetoric at the 1964 General Election had revolved around the idea that the Conservative Government had been out of date and out of touch, as opposed to a more dynamic Labour Party. The phrase ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’ is attributed to him after his speech at the Labour Party Conference at Scarborough in October 1963. Like many such catch phrases, he did not say it quite in this form; it has been slightly paraphrased. (His actual words were ‘In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re­stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.’)

Wilson felt that the Conservatives had committed themselves to some extremely expensive technological programmes such as Concorde, TSR 2, ELDO, and so on, and that the scientists, engineers and technicians involved should instead be working in private industry, helping to produce up-to-date goods for both the domestic and export markets. A number of aviation projects were cancelled in 1965, but Concorde and ELDO proved to be more difficult – they were international projects, and the Government had signed treaties which were hard to break. If the British Government were to cancel the projects, then they would be repudiating the treaties and be liable for damages – and the cost of the damages might well soak up any saving (although it is probable that the Government ended up spending far more on both Concorde and ELDO than it would have paid in damages as a result of cancellation in 1964).

Having discovered that pulling out of ELDO might be more trouble than it was worth, the British began employing other tactics. One was a demand for a reduction in its share of the budget. The argument being used here was that other countries were benefiting from developing new technologies, whereas developing Blue Streak was fairly routine work and nothing new was being learned.

Another tactic was to become excessively legalistic as to the nature of the work being carried out – whether it was part of the ‘original programme’ or not. The British Government had signed up to the programme as agreed in the original convention, and nothing else. Any change to the programme – for example, the perigee/apogee system – could then be opposed on the basis that it was not in the original agreement. These problems became more acute as costs rose, and new budgets had to be negotiated. Finally, the British Government effectively withdrew on the basis that it was interested in developing the technology that went into the satellites rather than the launchers. This withdrawal was de facto rather than de jure, as we shall see.

An example of the British attitude can be seen in a memo concerning the French and ELDO B:

If ministers accept the Chief Secretary’s view that the UK should not participate in the ELDO programme as proposed by the Minister of Aviation, it will be important to handle this in such a way as to minimise political repercussions. I do not doubt that if the UK delegate were to stand up at the beginning of the conference and announce crudely that the UK is to withdraw from the organisation, there would be an unfortunate reaction among other members. But as stated earlier, the French have themselves called the whole future of the Organisation into question by insisting that its programme should be radically recast and that until this is done the French financial contribution will be restricted. It ought to be possible to take advantage of this to throw most of the onus for the collapse of the organisation on to the French. One need not say in terms that the UK regards ELDO as undesirable. All that would be necessary to say, as I see it would be that the UK are not prepared to depart from the concept of ELDO A as originally conceived and that they are not even willing to proceed to completion of this programme until it has been more adequately costed. As for ELDO B they could not begin to consider a commitment in principle on the basis of the inadequate information about the cost, technical validity and economic prospects of the project so far available. This, one hopes, should suffice to bring about the demise of ELDO.17

Such behaviour was also guaranteed to irritate Britain’s partners. It was Britain, after all, that had worked so hard persuading these countries to join ELDO, and now, halfway through the programme, it was Britain that was working to destroy the organisation. There is an interesting letter on the subject in the ELDO archives:

It is unrealistic and wasteful to attack either the British decision of April 1968 not to contribute to the ELDO overrun and not to participate in post 1971 rocket development, and the decision of the Four [that is, the four nations remaining in ELDO: France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium] to make sure that Europe possesses rockets for putting into orbit both near and geostationary satellites. What is at issue is purely the British contributions for 1969, 1970 and 1971 of a total value of about £M17.

In April, Mr. Wedgwood Benn announced the decision mentioned above, but stated that of course the UK would carry out its commitments as agreed in 1966 and earlier, evidently referring to these £M17. It seems, however, that the UK expected the immediate collapse of ELDO following the British announcement with dissolution liabilities, the British share of which could at most come to £M10 after 1968. This expectation may also have been partly responsible for the hesitations expressed about the supply of Blue Streak.

By the time of the Bonn Conference it had become clear that the Four wished ELDO to continue. This led on the one hand to British assurances on the supply of Blue Streak which were accepted by the others, and to the proposal made by Wedgwood Benn at Bonn that if the British liability to ELDO was reduced (the figure of £M17 was not mentioned then, but subsequently, especially at the ELDO Council on 29 November) the UK would put that much and more into application satellites, reversing the UK decision of April on this issue. Although the UK was helpful at Bonn on several issues (use of launchers, unifications), acceptance of this protocol was made a necessary condition for lifting the reservation the UK had put on this and several other points.

In fact the British proposal was never seriously considered because the others

(i) saw no sense in an applications programme without a launcher;

(ii) if the UK switched resources from the technically uninteresting production of

Blue Streak to application satellites, it would benefit her and no-one else;

(iii) the others were not in a hurry on applications;

(iv) they thought the UK was keen on applications anyway.

In these circumstances, the UK, on December 18, 1968, in a letter to the Ministers, released herself unilaterally from the commitment by regarding ELDO’s austerity plan T9 as different from what agreed in 1966. This pretext, although possibly justified on the narrowest legal basis, shocked the others by its patent conflict with earlier British statements. They fear the effect of this unilateralism as a precedent and certainly are asking whether such legal devices could be used equally in any other technologically risky long-term programme. The very basis of European technological co-operation has been undermined by this step through its fundamental shaking of confidence. The UK’s fitness as partner for any future enterprise is now being questioned even by her closest friends. Note that in this painful development there has never been any advice on the £M10 first presumably evaluated in April and now offered as a present, as no commitment is now said to exist.

All European technological co-operation in space, and possibly elsewhere, will be ruined by this destruction of trust. The severity of the step does not seen to have been understood in the UK, and is of course totally divorced from the merits or otherwise of ELDO.18

And even as ELDO was falling apart, the French Government was still pressing Britain on its participation, to which a memo from within the Department of Trade and Industry commented that:

The fact remains that there is little to be gained by the ELDO Secretariat or by the other ELDO members from making a fuss to keep us in the organisation. Legally we can argue the toss. Politically we can point up the logic of our position. And financially the organisation will be no worse off by our departure.19

In other words, the Government had washed its hands of the organisation, and there was very little in practical terms that the other countries could do. ELDO was finally wound up in 1972, and the British Government has never participated in any part of the Ariane project that followed.

Those in the ELDO Secretariat were well aware of its weaknesses, but had their hands tied. An exposition of the situation was given to the Royal Aeronautical Society in February 1968 by Dr Iserland of ELDO:

The difference between the technological task of ELDO and a political, economic or scientific task of other organisations, showed up from the start: time is a prime factor in technological achievements and, in particular, in space missiles.

When the Convention was signed in 1962, it was decided, therefore, not to wait until its ratification by the Governments, which took place only in 1964. To enable work to be started immediately, a Preparatory group was instituted as a part-time body with the responsibility of specifying and co-ordinating the work and preparing for the functioning of the Organisation on entry into force of the Convention. During this period, each member country started the work under its own authority and at its own financial risk by placing the contracts. To avoid discontinuity, the Convention also stipulated that after ratification, the authority for the contracts would remain with the Governments for the Initial Programme and that direct contracts between ELDO and the firms would necessitate the consent of the member state.

Paradoxically, this laudable desire for speed to start the work, characteristic of the technical nature of the enterprise, resulted, after 1964, in a factor slowing down unnecessarily the speed of progress. Since ELDO did not place the contracts itself, it was not vested in the authority of the ‘overlord’ which is essential in carrying out efficiently an industrial programme.

Strictly speaking, with the kind of organisation imposed for the Initial Programme, the executive lines for co-ordination and management of any part of the development programme of the Europa I launcher were as follows: if the central technical group in the Paris headquarters, known as the Secretariat, found it necessary to define or to specify some technical requirement, it would have to approach the appropriate ministry of the country in which the equipment was built: if this ministry accepted the need for it, it would pass the recommendation to the establishment which was entrusted with the supervision of the national work on behalf of the Government – in the UK this would have been Farnborough. This establishment would then specify the technical requirements to one or two different firms.

This already long process of imposing in ‘open-loop’ an already chosen solution is still relatively straightforward, compared with the process of agreeing on a technical solution where information had to go up and down this long ladder several times simultaneously in one or two different countries, first to find a technical solution and then to implement it. Needless to say, this strict formal line could not always be followed and technical features often had to be by ELDO representatives with some representatives from specialised establishments or industrial firms. However, a pragmatic practice which does not follow the agreed formal lines of control and financial authority can obviously lead to confusion at the risk of offsetting thereby, the advantage of the direct approach. The alternative, to avoid too long information lines, was to agree on a solution in meetings or Working Groups. Since ELDO had no authority to arbitrate a solution (not being the ‘overlord’), a kind of unanimity rule had to be followed, which consisted of convincing the representatives of each country and firm of the correctness of the suggested decision or to find a compromise, which was not necessarily technically optimum. There then still remained the long channel for implementation through the various steps mentioned before.

It will easily be imagined what difficulties are encountered in co-ordinating by such means, for example, the definition of a common electrical circuitry throughout the three-stage launcher.

In some instances, the frightening complexity of this type of co-ordination had a direct influence on the choice of some technical solutions. Here is one example: When it had to be decided whether a central sequencer for all flight events should be adopted for the complete vehicle or else individual sequencers for each stage, relaying each other after exchange of signals at the cut-off of one stage to initiate the start of the next one, it was judged that only the solution with individual stage sequencers had any chance of practical achievement, the central sequencer being outside the possibilities of such a remote co-ordination set-up in view of the numerous events, intimately related to details of each stage, which it would have to control. Without judging which solution is superior on strictly technical grounds, it can certainly be stated that the partial failures in our last two launches have some relation to that choice insofar as the light-up of the second stage did not occur in both cases because of incorrect functioning of the second stage sequencer, while the first stage operated with its own sequencer. Perhaps with a central system, we might either not have launched at all or else had correct sequences throughout the two-stage flight…

The first critical period developed when ELDO presented the budget for 1965. The new estimate of cost to completion of the Initial Programme was for approximately 400 million MU [MU = Monetary Unit, effectively equivalent to 1 US dollar] i. e., twice the original amount estimated in 1961 before the creation of ELDO. Consultations between the member countries became necessary according to the Convention. They took place early in 1965. France suggested to stop the development of the Europa I launcher and to proceed directly to the development of a more advanced and more powerful launcher with upper stages based on liquid hydrogen/oxygen.

The critical period lasted for about three months, during which an extensive study of the French proposal was made, before it was decided to continue the development of Europa I. The effect of this period can still be felt, as it slowed down the work and resulted in delays; delays which amounted to considerably more than the period of uncertainty itself. For the consultations of 1965, ELDO had prepared proposals for follow-up programmes after the Initial Programme. Decisions on these later programmes were, however, postponed by the member countries until 1966. This fact did not help to speed up the work on the Initial Programme after the crisis had been resolved.

Consultations between member countries resumed in 1966, but this time at ministerial level. It was now the turn of British Government to express doubts about the technical and economic validity of the Europa I launcher and to be concerned about the increasing costs. A second critical period began, and it took three sessions of the Ministerial Conference from April to July 1966 to resolve the crisis.

The comments about the flight sequencers (electronic systems that produce the signals to initiate events during flight) are interesting: ‘only the solution with individual stage sequencers had any chance of practical achievement’. Certainly the failures of F5 through to F8 can be put down to exactly that cause: the flight sequencers sending the wrong command at the wrong time, which might not have happened had there been one sequencer for the complete vehicle. It is a considerable indictment of the organisation that it was forced to adopt an engineering compromise which could well have led to the loss of five consecutive launches.

The attitude persisted as far down as the individual launch teams. Alan Bond (later to be designer of the UK spaceplane HOTOL) was the Rolls Royce performance engineer sent from England to monitor the engine performance on the F8 round, and has this to say about his experiences:

The Rolls Royce team at Woomera was under the very capable management of John Bowles. The insular nature of the various teams was striking from the start, not only internationally but also between the vehicle and propulsion teams from the UK.

I am not implying any animosity, there certainly was not any. In fact there was a palpable sense of doing something very important which everyone was very proud of. But there were cultural barriers to communication, except through the regular management channels. In the whole four months of the campaign, the conversations I had with members from the French, German and Italian teams could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

This was in complete contrast to the experience I had seven years later as part of the JET fusion research project where the integration of the international teams was very close. JET went on to be a world beating success and a demonstration of what collaboration can achieve.20

But there were other failures in ELDO, within the organisation itself. ELDO was very much a political construct, designed to cope with all the wheeling and dealing that went on in a multinational organisation such as this. The failure lay on the technical side.

Each country provided its own part of the vehicle, and acted independently. Thus the British set up Blue Streak as the first stage, and then the French would come along and add their stage on top, then the Germans would come with their stage, and finally the Italians would fit the payload and payload shrouds. There was no one in overall technical command. The Secretariat could only make recommendations to member states, with exhortations such as these:

Following the F7 trial [F7 being the seventh flight], the Secretariat tried to inculcate a greater awareness of the need for better technical discipline and control of operations during a trial. Meetings and discussions took place with Member States on the subject of inspection and defect reporting in particular. During the F8 trial, some improvement was obvious, but it is still apparent that these disciplines are not accepted as having the importance attached to them which the Secretariat would

wish. The supply and control of spares was also still far from satisfactory in the


upper stage areas.

Despite the exhortations, matters did not improve, as the report on the failure of the eleventh launch, F11, shows:

Two main points provide the basis for the failure of the project.

– the poor organisation of the management system as a whole;

– the technical difficulties of the third stage and its equipment.

The management system established since the beginnings of the Organisation has proved its ineffectiveness.

There exists a certain confusion about the respective roles of the national agencies, the Secretariat, and industry. With regard to the internal structure of the Secretariat, levels of authority are not sufficiently clear. Some firms are badly organised and have not shown a sense of responsibility. Finally, political problems have too often taken precedence over the technical problems and cost-effectiveness of the project.

In these conditions, the Secretariat was unable to play its proper piloting role, which resulted in an unflightworthy launcher and the abnormally high cost of the programme.

Without going into detail, the main technical problems lie in the third stage. Its design is complicated and its wiring needs to be thoroughly revised. Its integration has been particularly deficient. Three major systems in this stage have net been qualified: the sequencer, the middle skirt separation system, and the guidance computer. The latter, moreover, which is a prototype product, is not flightworthy.

To guarantee an adequate level of reliability, it is necessary:

– to achieve by appropriate tests the integration of all the on-board electrical systems of the third stage and to demonstrate their electromagnetic compatibility;

– to reorganise the Secretariat in order to transform it into an efficient management tool and provide it with unquestionable technical competence, so that it may play its proper role in discussions with industry.

– to rationalise the Secretariat industrial arrangements to enable a satisfactory solution of the interface and integration problems.22

F11 had been launched in November 1971. Ten years after the initial Anglo – French proposals, after eleven launches and literally hundreds of millions of pounds, the vehicle was still not, in the words of the report, flightworthy. Even so, ELDO still hoped to continue with Europa:

Following the failure of F11, the ELDO Council set up a EUROPA II Project Review Commission on 18th November 1971.

This Commission’s terms of reference were to propose corrections to the programme from both the technical and organisational points of view and to indicate the consequences of these corrections for future launchings.

The aims that the Commission sought to achieve were the following:

– to determine the technical, administrative and financial conditions for ensuring a substantial probability of success for the next EUROPA II launch within reasonable time limits, or to conclude that this is not possible;

– to propose a fresh target plan for launchers, launches and payloads from F12 to F16 inclusive.23

But the Germans failed to make much progress on the redesign of the third stage. The launch of F12 was put back until October 1973 (the F12 Blue Streak
arrived at Kourou in April), but it soon became apparent that ELDO was going nowhere, and in May 1972, the F12 launch was cancelled, Europa II abandoned, and ELDO was wound up at the end of the month. [9] [10]