The journey is over. On Sunday 14 February at 01:05 CET, the gate was opened. The upper stage of the Ariane 6 launcher, still in its container, arrived safely at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) site in Lampoldshausen. Now, it has to be tested before Ariane 6 lifts off next year. The European launcher's core stage with solid rocket boosters will propel it in the first 10 minutes of flight to 200 kilometres. Its almost 400-kilometre journey from Bremen to Lampoldshausen in Baden-Württemberg took two weeks.
The journey begins
This is the first time that a launcher section has been transported to Lampoldshausen by inland waterways. This route was chosen due to the size of the container, which is six metres high, almost seven metres wide and 14 metres long. "Height was a great challenge to the entire undertaking," explains Frank Sailer, responsible for the container's transport at ArianeGroup. Too tall to fit under some of the road bridges, the container was loaded onto the MS Eemstrans barge in the port of Bremen. But the water route brought its own challenges – torrential rains, snow and high water. The Eemstrans managed to complete its voyage along the rivers Weser, Hunte, Ems and IJssel. But on 2 February, the barge had to stop just before the Dutch-German border. The Rhine was closed to navigation due to high water levels. They had to wait until 8 February before receiving clearance to proceed. The Eemstrans could now continue its journey around the clock, and was provided with its own tugboat for assistance.
The container weighs 59 tonnes, but the ship needed additional ballast to provide enough clearance to safely travel under all the necessary bridges. To achieve this, 500 tonnes of sand were loaded as well. "The ballast gave us a draught of around 1.70 metres," says Sebastiaan van Vliet of Deetmer navigation, which owns the barge. Was transporting the Ariane upper stage business as usual? "In practice, you navigate as you normally would. But subconsciously, you are probably a bit more cautious than usual. Rockets aren’t something you carry around every day."
Arrival in Bad Wimpfen
On Friday 12 February, it was freezing cold in the port of Bad Wimpfen. Eemstrans moored on the bank of the river Neckar. The last 25-kilometre leg of the Ariane upper stage's journey would be over land. Two cranes were used to bring the container ashore. But with 33 years' experience under his belt, crane operator Günter Hilber was calm. He would move the load "like any other". "Coordination is key," he explains. Hilber is used to dealing with special aircraft. With his crane, he has already lifted a Concorde, a Boeing and an Antonov that were en route to museums in Speyer and Sinsheim. Initially, the crane operators could sit back in their cabs. The welded shipping fixings on the Emstrans had to be removed first.
Meanwhile, another smaller crane moved towards the quay accompanied by workers with shovels and a pneumatic drill – preparations for the final leg of the journey were already underway. Lampposts and road signs just outside of the port – seemingly minor details – would obstruct the oversized container housing the Ariane 6 upper stage. The workers dug up the lamppost as, just a few metres further on, wooden chocks and steel plates were put in position to level uneven ground.
Then, just after 14:00 CET, Günter Hilber and his colleagues were called into action. The Eemstrans backed up 50 centimetres into the ideal position. The crane operators were on full alert and the chains around the containers were pulled taut. There was a moment of worry that, due to the freezing temperatures, the valuable cargo may have become frozen to the ship's hold. But the container slowly began to inch out of the ship's hull. The writing on the container soon became visible: 'Ariane 6. European Launcher Programme. Upper Stage. Developed and manufactured in Bremen, Germany. Operated by: ArianeGroup.' It took another half hour before the upper stage, in its protective packaging, safely arrived on dry land. At 15:00, the Eemstrans cast off. A few kilometres upstream at Heilbronn was a cement plant awaiting its 500 tonnes of sand.
On the road to Lampoldshausen
By the late afternoon on Saturday 13 February, the chassis was attached to the heavy transporter and everything was ready for the final 25 kilometres of the journey. Over the coming days, the upper stage will be installed at the P5.2 test stand in Lampoldshausen. "We have the facilities to test everything Europe needs to travel into space," explains Stefan Schlechtriem, Director of the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion. Preparations for these tests have been ongoing for approximately two years, with the new test stand inaugurated in 2019.
Upon leaving Bad Wimpfen, estimates for the heavy transport's arrival time at the gates of the DLR site in Lampoldshausen varied wildly. Six hours was driver Olaf Wilke's guess. But the spokesperson for the local Heilbronn police, which accompanied the transport, suggested it could take as long as 12. Just after 20:00, the vehicle set off. Before it lay a sharp bend, then the bridge over the Neckar and the B27 state highway. The speed limit here is 70 kilometres per hour, but the transport rolled along at a maximum of 20.
After about an hour, it had covered 10 kilometres. The transport then turned off from the B27 onto the local road, clearing the delineators by a hair's breadth. Road signs lay by the roadside, put back in place soon after the vehicle passed them.
The first serious obstacle was a traffic light in Neuenstadt am Kocher. All the traffic lights on the route should have been folded out of harm's way, but this one remained in place, sticking out in front of the truck like a barrier. After half an hour the issue was resolved and the traffic light was rotated out of the way. Next came a roundabout – the shrubbery in the middle having been removed and the height reduced. The trailer got stuck on the island, as the wheels of the tractor spun helplessly. Large mats were placed underneath to help it get free. Then came the Kocher Bridge, which has only 6.94 metres between the railings on either side. "Forward a bit, forward a bit!", "Back a bit now!", "Over a bit!" – centimetre by centimetre, the transport specialists manoeuvred the vehicle into the right position. There was just a hand’s breadth between the container and the bridge rails. An hour passed by. It was almost midnight now, and the temperature was nine degrees below freezing. Then the container reached the small village of Bürg, with its narrow alleys. Residents in the streets had mobile phones at the ready. Volunteer firefighters were also on standby in case they were needed. The transport navigated a sharp left bend, then continued on towards Lamphldshausen at almost 20 kilometres per hour. One final roundabout remained, with the traffic stopped in other directions and some drivers getting out to take pictures.
At 01:05 CET, the heavy transporter containing the upper stage of the Ariane 6 launcher rolled onto the DLR site and proceeded to the P5.2 test stand. It finally reached its destination at 01:37. After less than six hours, Olav Wilke climbed down from his cab.