Perhaps the most surprising sight in the quiet residential town of Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc is a 1/5 scale model of a 1960s Diamant A rocket ...

Diamant A: a little bit of Space on Earth in Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc

Perhaps the most surprising sight in the quiet residential town of Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc is a 1/5 scale model of a 1960s Diamant A rocket positioned in the middle of a roundabout.

The model, which was funded by the space technology company EADS Astrium and manufactured by Matisa, was unveiled by the local mayor in November 2009. It celebrates the contributions made by engineers in the town to the Diamant A project, which formed part of President Charles de Gaulle’s plans to develop an independent nuclear defence system at the height of the Cold War.

1962 saw the arrival in Saint-Aubin of the Defence Ministry-funded Société pour l'Étude et la Réalisation d'Engins Balistiques (SEREB) as part of a nationwide drive to decentralise a number of key industries in France. SEREB took up residence in the leafy surroundings of the Domaine de Villepreux château and estate.

SEREB was already playing a frontline role in France’s “Pierres Précieuses” (gemstones) space programme, which had been launched the previous year. The programme encompassed a series of rockets (Agathe, Topaze, Émeraude, Rubis and Saphir), each of which aimed to perfect the different components that would ultimately go on to form the Diamant expendable launch system, the first to be developed by a country other than the USA or USSR.

Diamant A was the first of three variants to be produced (the others were known as Diamant B and BP4). The fully-assembled rocket was 18.95 metres in length, weighed 18.4 tons and could accommodate a payload of up to 150kgs. It lifted off for the first time from the Centre Interarmées d'Essais d'Engins Spéciaux (Hammaguir, Algeria) on November 26th 1965 carrying France’s maiden satellite, Astérix A1.

Still from footage of the launch (source: INA)

Commemorative stamps issuedin 1965 to celebrate Diamant
and Astérix (source: Le site de Michel Polacco).
Astérix A1, named after the comic strip character created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in 1959, had been manufactured by Matra to the designs of SEREB (subsequent satellites would be commissioned by France’s Centre National des Études Spatiales, founded in 1962). The 40kg satellite’s sole mission was to verify the accuracy of the launcher’s performance - ahead of sending more elaborate satellites into space - by means of a transponder and remote measurement transmission system which provided data relative to vertical and horizontal acceleration and angular speed.

Astérix A1 was successfully positioned in orbit at an altitude of 200kms but was damaged upon separation from the launcher and ceased to work after two days. It is reported that US radars later detected a second object circling the Earth on the same orbit and it is thought that it was a spanner that had been left in the rocket and released into space at the same time as the satellite! Astérix is still in space; given the high altitude of its orbit it is not expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere for several centuries.

Diamant launches continued until 1975, and from the fourth mission onwards the rockets departed from the Centre Spatial Guyanais at Kourou in French Guiana. Of the twelve launches, three resulted in failure but the overall campaign was deemed a success. Times had changed though and France went on to focus its attentions on the European Ariane launcher programme.

Meanwhile, in 1970, SEREB had merged with Nord-Aviation and Sud-Aviation to form Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale (SNIAS), which became known as Aérospatiale in March 1978. The new entity merged with Matra Hautes Technologies in 1999 and became Aérospatiale-Matra, its satellite division being taken over by Alcatel (becoming a Thales/Finmeccanica joint venture, Thales Alenia Space, in 2007). Finally, the merger between Aérospatiale-Matra, DASA (Deutsche Aerospace) and CASA (Construcciones Aeronáuticas Sociedad Anónima) resulted in the creation of EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space), the space branch of which, Astrium, still boasts a facility in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles.

While parts of the Villepreux estate have been donated by EADS to the town of Saint-Aubin (the municipality utilising the land to build a seminar venue and music school), the château and its immediate surroundings remain part of the group and are now an in-house residential training facility or, as the official website puts it, an “Executive Education Center”. The facility continues to acknowledge its 1960s space heritage: the château itself has been given the name "Diamant" while the restaurant area is known as "Les Pierres Précieuses"...

1995 report looking back on the event:


  1. You have a great post here of which I knew absolutely nothing before. Thanks for all the info and the photos. Have a good day Diane

    1. Thanks for that kind feedback and for your return visits!