UK: Book reviews - Europe's celestial bodies.

UK: Book reviews - Europe's celestial bodies. - Giotto to the Comets. By Nigel Calder. Presswork (distributed by Central Books); 223pp; £8.95. Review by David Fishlock.

by David Fishlock.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Giotto to the Comets. By Nigel Calder. Presswork (distributed by Central Books); 223pp; £8.95. Review by David Fishlock.

It is an old complaint of engineers that when a project goes well journalists hail it as a triumph for science, but when things go awry it is an engineering failure. In fact, success or failure of a high-technology venture is rooted in the way these two totally interdependent professions have worked together, as this book brings out so well.

It is the tale of a tremendously successful space project: the creation of a spacecraft to explore the tail of Halley's comet. "No other spacecraft ever had so magical a name," enthuses Nigel Calder. "The magic of Giotto came from its sound. By honouring the first Italian master painter in the bow shock of the Renaissance, the name showed that physicists were not uncultured folk." It is also the tale of masterly organisation and management and how, with mission accomplished, a new team could pick up and re-use the project for a second mission.

Giotto was born of a cancelled American mission in which Europe had hoped to participate. In the 1960s Europe had two bodies involved in space research and development: the successful European Space Research Organisation which designed and deployed spacecraft, and the less successful European Launcher Development Organisation which designed and deployed rockets. The latter was responsible for the accident-prone Europa launch vehicle which, by 1972, had failed four times in four test launches - and "there was nobody to sack except the entire misshapen organisation".

Out of Europa's ashes rose the European Space Agency (ESA). It had responsibility for both spacecraft and launcher, and a prime contractor in command so there could be no ambiguity about blame. The outcome was Ariane, managed by France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales with Aerospatiale as industrial architect. The countdown for Ariane's first test launch late in 1979 was in French. The test was a resounding success. For the first time Europe had orbited a geostationary satellite. Up until then Europe's space R and D had always played junior partner in dealings with the mighty NASA. But NASA had annoyed those scientists with a special interest in comets by cancelling a project to explore Halley's comet. It was Europe's big chance.

Comets impose their own imperatives. Halley's had an appointment with the sun in February 1986. The last date possible for a launch designed to intercept its tail was the summer of 1985 - that left five years to get backing from 14 member states and ESA management, and to research, design, build and test a spacecraft. The mission would be to learn what a comet is made of.

Five frantic months followed in which Giotto's proponents managed to sell priority for their mission to the member states. The price quoted was 83 million ecus. The project manager was a Briton, David Dale, who during these months achieved a personal coup in persuading Australian astronomers to let him use their radio-telescope to talk to Giotto. It cost him only $200,000 whereas NASA had asked for £10 million.

Once the project was on, the clamour began among competing interests for a corner of the aluminium can. Teams of space scientists across Europe all had their own ideas of what must be measured and how. The can at this stage had a top weight of 840kg and needed power for a long journey, and stability and armour against the ferocious sandstorm of comet debris.

The project almost foundered right at the beginning when it became clear that the early plan of relying on a British Aerospace design that used much off-the-shelf technology to keep costs down was simply not good enough. It took decisive leadership by Dale to restore harmony between the project and BAe. He made it a rule that if any pair of engineers representing the different camps should fail to harmonise their ideas, both would be dumped from the project. Yet British Aerospace was confirmed as the prime contractor.

The immutability of the appointment gave the project an urgency that earlier European space ventures had not known. "The name Giotto was like a stamp saying, Attention - Urgent," says Calder. It gave the project an uprated launcher at no extra cost, although Dale persisted in being tight-fisted about payload mass, withholding extra kilograms from the scientists to safeguard his engineers against the unforeseen.

ESA formally accepted Giotto from British Aerospace in April 1985. A week later it was en route to the launch pad in French Guiana. Dale, the tough project boss, followed - only to demand that he be moved to a new hotel when he encountered a tarantula in the first.

David Dale's reward for his brilliant project management was to take charge of mission management for all of ESA's scientific spacecraft. But one of his instructions was overridden by higher authority. Once Giotto had kept its date with the comet he ordered: "Switch the bloody thing off!" They didn't, and in July 1992 Giotto was able to keep a second space date with the Grigg-Skjellerup comet.

David Fishlock is a freelance writer on scientific subjects.

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