Next stop: space | Discover

As more and more entrepreneurs look towards space exploration, it’s still almost unknown outside the industry that one of the world’s busiest launch sites is on the doorstep of the Caribbean. Erline Andrews learns how French Guiana’s half-century-old spaceport is essential to our future exploring the galaxy

  • Decades in the making, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched from Kourou, will change the way scientists understand our galaxy. Photo by NASA/D Stover
  • 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . liftoff at Kourou’s Centre Spatial Guyanais. Photo by Esa/Stephane Corvaja

French Guiana & The Centre Spatial Guyanais (Guiana Space Centre)

The James Webb Space Telescope, due to be sent into orbit next year, promises to help us learn more about the universe than we ever have before. A successor to the famed Hubble telescope, the JWST is one hundred times more powerful, and will be the biggest of its kind. Named after the influential former head of NASA, the JWST took decades to design, almost US$9 billion, and the effort of a multinational team of scientists. It is hoped the telescope’s sensitive infrared cameras will be able to detect and photograph galaxies, planets, and stars in the farthest reaches of the universe.

And this extraordinary telescope — plus other examples of the most cutting-edge space campaigns of coming years — will launch from what most people might find an unlikely place: the jungle of a sparsely populated and little known territory of the Caribbean.

French Guiana, sandwiched between Suriname and Brazil, is not known for tourism — its shark-infested waters mean beaches aren’t a draw. It’s not known for any particular export, like bauxite from nearby Guyana. It’s not internationally known for any particular festival or event, like Carnival in its neighbour Trinidad and Tobago to the northwest.

But the French overseas department — geographically in South America but culturally linked to France’s other Caribbean territories — is home to one of the world’s most significant launch sites for space missions.

The Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG) — known in English as the Guiana Space Centre — began operations in 1968 on the outskirts of the town of Kourou. It turns out a location still under the administration of France, with more area covered by forest than by cities or towns, was ideal to develop Europe’s extraterrestrial ambitions.

French Guiana’s position near the equator means the earth’s rotation gives an extra boost to rockets, saving money because less fuel is needed. Proximity to the ocean and large swaths of uninhabited land remove the concern that falling equipment could land on people or buildings below. The area is not prone to earthquakes or hurricanes.

The CSG’s first launch took place on the night of 24 December, 1968, four years after the French government decided to establish it, explains director Didier Faivre. “It was a very small launcher,” he says. “But you have to imagine that nothing existed at this time. No roads, no harbour . . .

“To decide at the highest level in France to put here in a remote country an important strategic asset of French policy was a really bold decision,” Faivre adds.


Over the past five decades, Kourou has grown from a coastal outpost to a thriving commercial centre, home to the CSG’s employees. British author Alain de Botton, writing for the UK Independent, gave a sense of the stark difference between the space centre and its surroundings after he visited in 2009:

“There were three control centres, a generating plant, barracks for a division of the Foreign Legion, two swimming pools, and a restaurant specialising in the cuisine of the Languedoc,” he wrote. “These were scattered across hectares of marsh and jungle, generating bewildering contrasts for visitors who might walk out of a rocket-nozzle-actuator building and a moment later find themselves in a section of rainforest sheltering round-eared bats and white-eyed parakeets, before arriving at a propulsion facility whose corridors were lined with Evian dispensers and portraits of senior managers.”

The CSG is administered and funded by the ESA, Europe’s NASA equivalent, in partnership with the French space agency CNES and private company Arianespace. Its average eleven launches each year are used mainly to send satellites into space for commercial and governmental purposes, like communication and national defence. The centre has launched more than half of the world’s commercial satellites.

But it has also been responsible for missions investigating what could help us or harm us beyond earth’s atmosphere. All five automated transfer vehicles or cargo ships that were sent to the International Space Station between 2008 and 2014 launched from French Guiana. Not only did the ships take supplies to the station, which has a crew that conducts a variety of research — they were also monitored to help improve spacecraft design.

The Gaia, which cost 740 million euros and has been called “the most sophisticated space telescope ever built by Europe,” was launched from Kourou in 2013. Its purpose is to map the Milky Way, locating a billion stars, one per cent of the number in the galaxy — more than have been attempted before.

Over the next few years, the CSG will be used to execute missions important not only for Europe but for the rest of the world. The JWST launch, the most highly anticipated, is set for 2019. Before that, in October, Kourou should see off Europe’s first attempt to orbit Mercury. It’s the planet closest to the sun, which makes this a technologically challenging mission, costing 1.65 billion euros. It’s taken almost two decades to develop the two spacecraft, called orbiters, that will take seven years to get to their destination.

And a new launch site is being built for a new rocket, the Ariane 6, which has been designed with efficiency in mind, to help combat competition from Elon Musk’s Space X — which has shaken up the space exploration industry by being the first to reuse a rocket.

For all its importance to Europe’s space ambitions, the centre has not been doing nearly as much for French Guiana. Space technology is developed and constructed in Europe and North America, then shipped to Guiana, so it’s not adding to the skills development of average Guianese.

French Guiana made international headlines early last year, when a five-week labour strike — which saw protesters blocking roadways — forced the delay of three space missions, costing private companies and countries across the world millions of dollars. Part of the motivation for the strike was the feeling that not enough labour union members were being hired for the construction of the new launch site.

In contrast to the value of the CSG, French Guiana is the second poorest of France’s overseas departments. About twenty per cent of the residents are unemployed, and close to forty per cent live in poverty. The crime rate and cost of living are high, and many households don’t have electricity or running water. The education system is undeveloped, with many schools dilapidated, and half of Guianese failing to earn a diploma. There are only two main roads connecting the main towns along the coast. In the interior, people still travel by canoe.

A similar strike erupted in 2008 over high fuel prices. It ended after eleven days, when the government agreed to a price reduction. Then in 2011 a rocket launch was delayed for twenty-four hours because of a strike by radar tracking operators.

“We don’t have access to work, medical care, or education,” said Gauthier Horth, an opposition politician interviewed by France 24 magazine during last year’s strike. “We are not equal to other French citizens.”

To resolve the strike, the French government agreed in writing to invest 2.1 billion euros in health care, education, business development, and crime reduction in Guiana. This is in addition to a promised 1.1 billion euros in aid.

It remains to be seen how much things will improve in French Guiana, though the protesters know the French government has reason to take better care of the welfare of Guianese: our future in space might actually depend on it.