Jungle rockets in French Guiana

by Richard Humphries

KOUROU, French Guiana — It must be one of the best-protected sites in South America. To the north is the ocean, full of devious currents and deadly sharks. To the south is dense rain forest, unforgiving to those who enter unprepared. The site’s most important buildings are ringed with electronic fencing whose jolt may do more than just hurt. On and behind those fences are layers of rolled barbed wire. And for anyone still intent on mischief there’s the French Foreign Legion to consider.

The Centre Spatial Guyanais, or Guiana Space Center, is a high-tech marvel in a relatively remote and underdeveloped land. Handling over 50 percent of today’s commercial satellite launches, it is the big boy on that block. Other locations that compete for this billion-dollar business include America’s Cape Canaveral, the Russian-run Baikanur and Plesetsk Cosmodromes, China’s Taiyuan Satellite Launching Center and Sea Launch, an upstart company that launches in the Pacific from a floating platform. Also, there’s Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, site of the successful H-2A lift-off on Aug. 29. However, that site has a limited launch season, in part to avoid conflicts with fishing interests, and will find it a tough challenge to grab any significant share of the satellite-launch business.

The CSG Spaceport occupies a 900-sq. km chunk of coastal French Guiana, an overseas “departement” of France once primarily known for its notoriety as a penal colony. Political factors influenced the spaceport’s establishment in the late 1960s: France was determined to have a space program independent of American or Russian control, but had to give up its Algerian testing range after 1967. New locations such as Trinidad, Somalia and Polynesia were considered, but in the end French Guiana was chosen. It was sparsely populated (good for security and safety), did not experience hurricanes or earthquakes, was under French control and, best of all, was close to the Equator — scientifically and economically the best place for launches.

The first test rocket, named Veronique, went up on April 9, 1968. Further progress was slow and the whole program’s future often in doubt. An upgraded rocket called the Europa II failed spectacularly. It was not until Dec. 24, 1979, when the Ariane 1 rocket, a major technological improvement, was fired off that fortunes improved.

The name choice was meant to send a message. Ariane, a French rendering of Ariadne, was the Minoan princess of Greek mythology who helped her Athenian lover Theseus slay the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth. Washington and Moscow had no doubt whom the ravenous, bullheaded and, in the end, not too bright Minotaur was meant to represent.

Commercial launches began in 1984. The rocket was further improved and two models, Ariane 4 and Ariane 5, are currently being used at separate launch pads. As of October 2001, there have been 144 launches in the series. The success rate, particularly with the workhorse Ariane 4, has been very high.

Three entities with overlapping areas of interest oversee the spaceport. First, the CSG was built by, and is a unit of, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, the French national space program. Second, the European Space Agency is a 15-nation association that has been involved in the rocket design and long-range planning for the spaceport. And, not least, there is Arianespace, the commercial member of the trio, a semiprivate (CNES has 32.45 percent of the shares) European consortium. It markets launch services, insures them, and conducts the launches.

European nations have contributed much capital investment in the CSG so public relations are important. To this end, preregistered visitors are allowed in on conducted tours lasting three hours.

Visually, the working part of the spaceport seems the antithesis of the jungle that partially frames it. Instead of dense foliage there’s an austere simplicity. The landscape has a manicured, country club feel. Instead of an overwhelming biological profusion in myriad color there is the antiseptic flavor of minimalist industrial design. This is the haunt of the person in a white suit rather than of the jaguar or toucan. Heat and humidity bow uneasily before the air conditioner.

But despite the incongruity of its setting, the operation is undeniably impressive. Most of the time we were at Launch Facility 2 (ELA 2), designed for the three-stage Ariane 4 launches. There, an interconnected complex comprises the Preparation Zone. In the Destocking Hall, the stages are unpacked and inspected. In the Erection Hall, they are positioned vertically, and in the Assembly Hall, 67 meters high, the stages are united. The process takes on average 12 to 15 days.

About 12 days before a launch (D -12), the rocket is towed along a 1,000-meter railway track to the Launch Zone and connected to a 74 meter-high umbilical tower. This allows another launch to be prepared in the Preparation Zone, an important commercial consideration as a fast turnaround means more orders can be filled. Engineers then bring a servicing gantry alongside and, on D -5, integrate the satellite payload bay into the rocket. Both Ariane 4 and Ariane 5 can carry a payload of two satellites and launch them into separate orbits.

The fueling is completed one day before a launch. Liquid propellant (and sometimes solid fuel) is used in the first two stages and cryogenic fuel in the third. Then, the servicing gantry is moved away and, all going well, a final countdown leads to a successful launch. Depending on the payload and the type of Ariane 4 rocket being used (there are six versions), the rocket will weigh between 250 and 480 metric tons at liftoff.

Although journalists, CSG officials, VIPs and satellite-company representatives may watch the final sequencing from the Jupiter Control Room, a structure located several kilometers from either of the launch pads, much of that is really automated. The actual countdown for Ariane 4 rockets is controlled from the Launch Control Center, located in the Ariane 4 Preparation Zone. Other invitees, as well as members of the public, can watch the liftoff outside at designated observation areas.

A short distance from ELA 2 lies ELA 3, where Ariane 5 launches are prepared and conducted. This facility is larger and its preparation structures are separated rather than interconnected. There is also a railway between the assembly and launch zones, but, at 3 km, it is much longer than that used with the Ariane 4. The Ariane 5 rocket, a significant technological advance on the Ariane 4, represents the future of the program, and is capable of carrying much heavier satellite payloads. The first successful test launch was in 1996 and commercial launches began in 1999.

That program experienced a severe shock on July 12, 2001, however. Flight 142, an Ariane 5 launch with a payload of two satellites, Japan’s BSAT-2B and the European Space Agency’s Artemis, malfunctioned, placing the satellites in lower, useless orbits. Writing in Arianespace’s e.space magazine for September 2001, Edouard Perez, a senior vice president for technical and industrial affairs, identified the problem that caused hardware losses of perhaps $1 billion.

“The simple design of the Ariane 5 upper stage and the spontaneous combustion of propellants used . . . should make the ignition phase less complex — but this was still the source of the first technical problem in the commercial career of the heavyweight launcher,” he noted.

This setback notwithstanding, Arianespace continues to launch Ariane 4 rockets successfully, and is on schedule to launch a modified Ariane 5 rocket in January 2002. It currently has a backlog of 41 satellites and ambitious plans for the future.

The Ariane 4 program will be phased out over the next few years and the Ariane 5 adapted to carry even heavier payloads. In 2005, the Vega, a smaller rocket of Italian design, will be added to fill a market niche for inexpensive launches with smaller payloads. And, according to a visiting mission technician I spoke with, Arianespace may join with a rival to further increase its market share.

“Right now, Arianespace is negotiating seriously with the Russians,” he said. “They hope that Russian Soyuz rockets will use the Guiana spaceport in the future. That will then give Arianespace a huge advantage when competing with the Americans.”

Europe’s spaceport has had an immense effect on French Guiana, both economically and socially. At least 50 percent of the territory’s economic activity relates to the space program. This includes two-thirds of its imports. Kourou, the town closest to the space center, is a study in contrasts.

From 1961, when it had just 659 inhabitants and under 2 percent of Guiana’s population, it has grown to some 19,000 people, representing almost 12 percent. Guianese call it the “White City,” though only some 25 percent of residents are Europeans. The remainder are a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and include Creoles — the dominant population in French Guiana — as well as Haitians, Amerindians, Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) and other South Americans.

There is a distinct social stratification that explains the town’s nickname. The CSG is not a labor-intensive employer, and the advanced engineering and technical skills needed to work there are very difficult to acquire within French Guiana, as its population is a mere 167,000. Hence, it is mostly men and women from metropolitan France and other European countries who command the highest-paying salaries, join the sports clubs, and live in the best houses.

When the land was appropriated for the Center, those displaced were given apartment blocks that now have something of a run-down look. There are also separate villages within Kourou for both Maroons and Amerindians, who occupy the bottom rungs of the social and economic scale.

While generally very well received, the Center did face local opposition on one issue. The main east-west highway, Route Nationale 1, passed directly through the Space Center. Officials, increasingly worried about security, had a deviation road built in 1991. The public easily preferred the original route, which meant 50 km less traveling distance, and continued using it. Space officials pressured the state to close the road to the public. Despite considerable local objection, this was achieved in October 1994. The Space Center now calls its private highway the Route de L’Espace.

For its first 20 years, Arianespace was profitable. Since 2000, there has been some red ink due to currency fluctuations, satellite delivery delays from overseas and the failed launch in July. The company hopes for a swift return to profit. And speaking of profit, it is ironic that the first European explorers to frequent that part of South America were looking for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. What those sea captains could not find, their descendants may have contrived to build.