The Precious Stones

In August 1959, France decided to create a nuclear deterrent power which was to be concretized a few years later in the form of three strategic components:
- an air-force component with the Mirages IV bombers,
- a ground component with SSBS missiles (Strategic Ballistic Ground-Ground),
- a naval component with MSBS missiles (Strategic Ballistic Sea-Ground).

This decision was to involve the cancellation of the tactical nuclear missiles programs of which the SE4500 ramjet missile, then the SSBT Casseur solid-rocket missile, both of 100 km range. The design and manufacture of long-range nuclear missiles required the development of propulsion, piloting, guidance and re-entry techniques which were not available in France. A specific industrial structure was then created, the SEREB (Ballistic Missiles Study and Manufacture Company) as well as an official structure, the GEB (Ballistic Missiles Group) within the DTIA (Aeronautics Industrial Technical Directorate). The EBB (Basic Ballistic Studies) were to be carried out thanks to a series of VEs (Experimental Vehicles) launched, for the majority, from the CIEES (Interarm Special Weapons Test Center) in the Sahara.


Preliminary test vehicles

The first tests were devoted to the development of warheads recovery techniques. A series of tests was first carried out with VE8 inert warheads released from planes in 1960-62, and two VE9 instrumented warheads were launched by solid-rockets. They were propelled by the most powerful solid-motor available at that time, the SEPR 732, 55 cm in diameter, used as booster for the SE4400 Surface-to-Air Missile.

The first integrated vehicle was the VE10 Aigle, intended to test the telemetering equipment. It was simply stabilized by fins and propelled by an SEPR 737 Stromboli loaded with 984 kg of Plastolite propellant, of which diameter was also 55 cm. Its 360 kg payload culminated at about twenty kilometers against 5 to 6 km for its predecessor. It was fired four times in 1960-61, then twice again in 1963-64 in a VE10A (Lightened) version.

Agate, first Precious Stone

The VE110 Agate was a single-stage vehicle which used a much more powerful motor, the NA801 Mammouth inherited from SSBT program. This motor, 80 cm in diameter, loaded with 1900 kg of Plastolite propellant, provided 190 kN during 18 seconds. The vehicle was neither controlled nor guided, but stabilized by a cruciform empennage. It was primarily used to test a recoverable equipment box, which was then to be used systematically on the test vehicles. Eight specimens were launched successfully between 1961 and 1963.

A shortened version VE110RR (Re-entry Recovery) was used to develop the recovery techniques at sea. After being programmed in the CEL (Test Center in the Landes), four launches were finally carried out in 1963-64 in the CERES (Special Weapons Tests and Research Center) situated in the Levant island.

Topaze, first piloted French rocket

The VE111 Topaze, was a vehicle of same diameter but shorter than Agate. It was propelled by a Soleil motor loaded with 1500 kg of Isolane, propellant more powerful than Plastolite. Equipped with four revolving nozzles, it was the first controlled vehicle of the series. Thus, it could be fired from a stand whereas the VE10 and VE110 used a ramp. It was to be also the second stage of the VE231 Saphir, but the expected performances required a VE111 comprising 700 kg more of propellant. Two versions successively came into the world, the VE111C (Short) with a NA802 motor and the VE111L (Long) with a NA803 motor.

Six specimens of VE111C, fired between late 1962 and late 1963, were devoted to the development of piloting by nozzle steering. Ten VE111 had been planned for that, but after a series of six successes, it was decided to hold the four remainders for the studies of piloting more unstable vehicles such as the MSBS. These tests, carried out in 1964 with a VE111CI (Short Unstable) version, comprised three successes out of four launches.

The VE111L was tested successfully twice in 1963-64. Two other specimens were used to test a complete inertial guidance system. These two launches in VE111LG (Long Guidance) version also were successful in May 1965.

Emeraude and the liquid propulsion

The first liquid-propelled Precious Stone was to use the experience gained by the LRBA with Veronique and Vesta rockets. The VE121 Emeraude used the same propellants (12,8 tons of nitric acid and turpentine). The diameter of the vehicle reached 1.40 m and the 280 kN engine, extrapolated that of Vesta, was always supplied by tanks pressurization. Emeraude was intended for the study of high power liquid propulsion and piloting by nozzle orientation (pitch and yaw) and aerodynamic control surfaces (roll). During the tests, Emeraude was topped by an inert Topaze mockup.

The first three launches, carried out in 1964, ended into failures due primarily to an ignorance of POGO effect and liquid propellants tossing. These defects could be corrected rather quickly and the last two launches were successful before mid-1965.

VE231 Saphir Saphir

Saphir, last EBB vehicle

In the VE231 Saphir, the second stage became active. This vehicle was to allow the in-flight experimentation of piloting a two-stage rocket, stages separation, inertial guidance and warhead re-entry. These various aspects were studied with three successive versions of the VE231, named P (Piloting), G (Guidance) and R (Re-entry).

Three VE231P were fired from July to October 1965, of which two successes. Six VE231G were fired successfully from March 1966 to January 1967, on ranges from 1500 to 2100 km. Five VE231R out of the six launched, allowed the study of ablative protection warhead re-entry between March and December 1966.

December 18, 1961, the Committee on Space Research decided to develop a space launcher, named Diamant, by replacing the Saphir payload by a third stage. An agreement was concluded between the DMA (Ministerial Delegation for Armament) and the CNES in May 1962, and the SEREB was nominated as project manager of the program. It was essential to equip Diamant with a high performances third stage. The choice turned to a reeled structure motor loaded with 640 kg of Isolane propellant and delivering a thrust from 27 to 53 kN during 45 seconds.

Rubis, experimental vehicle and sounding rocket

The VE210 Rubis was initially designed for in-flight testing the fairing jettison and the separation and spinning of the third stage. It was obtained by setting the Diamant upper part on an Agate first stage. Six launches, of which four successes, were carried out from June 1964 to June 1965 and validated the whole concept.

Four other launches of Rubis were carried out under the CNES responsibility. The first one was also a technological flight intended for the development of the D1 satellite. Two flights were devoted to radioastronomy experiments for the Paris Observatory, and another with a German geophysics experiment for the Max Plank Institute.

a/ SEREB vehicles
b/ Preliminary vehicles launches
b.1/ VE9
b.2/ VE10 Aigle
c/ Precious Stones launches
c.1/ VE110 Agate
c.2/ VE111 Topaze
c.3/ VE121 Emeraude
c.4/ VE231 Saphir
c.5/ VE210 Rubis
Listings by Philippe Jung, Alcatel Space, France

a/ SEREB vehicles

Aigle        Agate        Topaze

Scale in meters

Propellant Mass
Burn time
VE91 6857470 4,73306
VE102 2258980 1633020
VE10A 6,96980 16  
VE1103 2008,561 8701901836065
VE110RR2 9007,211 87019018320 
VE111C3 0007,.071 5301203941080
VE111L3 7008,042 25015044410110
VE111LG3 4347,872 25015044360110
VE12118 20017,9312 80028091395 +200
VE231P18 05817,7712 800 + 2 250280 + 15091 + 443651 000
VE231G18 04217,7712 800 + 2 250280 + 15091 + 443451 000
VE231R17 91417,4712 800 + 2 250280 + 15091 + 443361 000
VE2103 4009,611 870 + 640190 +18 + 45352 400
Note : The vehicle code comprised three digits:
1/ number of stages
2/ propulsion type: 1- solid, 2 - liquid, 3 - liquid/solid combination
3/ control type: 0 - none, 1 - piloted;, 2 - piloted and guided

b/ Preliminary vehicles launches
b.1/ VE9
12 Nov 1960HMGVE9 #1Nosecone recoveryS
15 Nov 1960HMGVE9 #2Nosecone recoveryS

b.2/ VE10 Aigle
17 Dec 1960HMGVE10 #1Nosecone recoveryPS
19 Dec 1960HMGVE10 #2Nosecone recoveryPS
16 Mar 1961HMGVE10 #3Nosecone recoveryPS
21 Mar 1961HMGVE10 #4Nosecone recoveryPS
05 Mar 1963HMGVE10A #1Technology, TelemeteringS
02 Nov 1964HMGVE10A #2Technology, TelemeteringS

c/ Preciuos Stones Launches
c.1/ VE110 Agate
03 Jun 1961HMGVE110 #1TechnologyS
07 Jun 1961HMGVE110 #2TechnologyS
13 Nov 1961HMGVE110 #3TechnologyS
17 Nov 1961HMGVE110 #4TechnologyS
19 Mar 1962HMGVE110 #5TechnologyS
23 Mar 1962HMGVE110 #6TechnologyS
18 May 1963HMGVE110 #7TechnologyS
21 May 1963HMGVE110 #8TechnologyS
19 Nov 1963IDLVE110RR #1Nosecone sea recoveryVF (explosion)
28 Nov 1963IDLVE110RR #2Nosecone sea recoveryNo recovery
28 Feb 1964IDLVE110RR #3Nosecone sea recoveryNo recovery
20 Apr 1964IDLVE110RR #4Nosecone sea recoveryS

c.2/ VE111 Topaze
19 Dec 1962HMGVE111C3Technology, PilotingS
22 Mar 1963HMGVE111C4Technology, PilotingS
28 Mar 1963HMGVE111C7Technology, PilotingS
21 Jun 1963HMGVE111C9Technology, PilotingS
27 Jun 1963HMGVE111C8Technology, PilotingS
24 Oct 1963HMGVE111C10Technology, PilotingS
21 Dec 1963HMGVE111L1Technology, L versionS
11 Mar 1964HMGVE111L2Technology, L versionS
04 Jun 1964HMGVE111Ci1Technology, MSBS 
21 Oct 1964HMGVE111Ci2Technology, MSBS 
11 Dec 1964HMGVE111Ci3Technology, MSBS 
15 Dec 1964HMGVE111Ci4Technology, MSBS 
18 May 1965HMGVE111LG1Technology, GuidanceS
21 May 1965HMGVE111LG2Technology, GuidanceS

c.3/ VE121 Emeraude
15 Jun 1964HMGVE121 #1TechnologyEV (guidance)
17 Jun 1964HMGVE121 #2TechnologyEV (explosion)
20 Oct 1964HMGVE121 #3TechnologyEV (tank pressure)
27 Feb 1965HMGVE121 #4TechnologyS
13 May 1965HMGVE121 #5TechnologyS

c.4/ VE231 Saphir
05 Jul 1965HMGVE231P #1Technology, PilotingS
10 Jul 1965HMGVE231P #2Technology, PilotingVF separation
09 Oct 1965HMGVE231P #2Technology, PilotingS (1150 km)
13 Mar 1966HMGVE231G #1Technology, GuidanceS
18 Mar 1966HMGVE231G #2Technology, GuidanceS
29 Mar 1966HMGVE231R #2Technology, Re-entryS
05 Apr 1966HMGVE231R #1Technology, Re-entryS
23 Jun 1966HMGVE231R #4Technology, Re-entryS
05 Oct 1966HMGVE231R #3Technology, Re-entryS
28 Oct 1966HMGVE231G #3Technology, GuidanceS
02 Nov 1966HMGVE231G #4Technology, GuidanceS
02 Dec 1966HMGVE231R #5Technology, Re-entryVF separation
13 Dec 1966HMGVE231R #6Technology, Re-entryS
19 Jan 1967HMGVE231G #5Technology, GuidanceS
27 Jan 1967HMGVE231G #6Technology, GuidanceS

c.5/ VE210 Rubis
10 Jun 1964HMGVE210 #1TechnologyS (1800 km)
12 Jun 1964HMGVE210 #2TechnologyS (1800 km)
12 Oct 1964HMGVE210 #3TechnologySP
18 Dec 1964HMGVE210 #4TechnologySP
31 May 1965HMGVE210 #5Diamant programS
03 Jun 1965HMGVE210 #6Diamant programS
05 Jun 1965HMGVE210 #7D1 programS
30 Sep 1965HMGVE210 #8FU141 RadioastronomyS (1760 km)
22 Apr 1966HMGVE210 #9FU136 Ba and CuO2 cloudsS (2035 km)
05 Jul 1967BISVE210 #10FU146 RadioastronomyS (1560 km)

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Please contact Jean-Jacques Serra <> for comments, corrections or questions