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Kourou river

A dense rain forest towers over the shores of the Kourou River in French Guiana. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The unknown world: from America to Guiana

"Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" should always use a question about French Guiana when they want to bury a player. In the US, French Guiana itself could probably win a contest for the least known place in the world. To an American, it is as alien as it can get short of flying to another planet. When I mentioned my plans for a trip there, my college-educated friends were making disoriented faces, trying to stick it in Africa, instead of Guinea-Bissau or in Oceania in place of Papua New Guinea. Narrowing down choices to South America would not help either, thanks to Guyana, which is located next door to French Guiana on the Atlantic Coast of Amazon jungle.

Perhaps the closest French Guiana gets to scratching an elephant skin of self-centered American pop-culture is a reference in Woody Allen's "documentary" Zelig, whose character's remarkable metamorphosis into an ultra-orthodox rabbi, during a visit to France almost gets him exiled to Devil's Island. Allen obviously alluded to the 1894 trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a jewish officer of the French army wrongly convicted for spying and sent to a penal colony on the Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana.

Over the years, the notorious Devil's Island became Guiana's biggest claim to fame, or rather infamy. The region's relatively new space career, which started in the 1960s, still did not help to significantly raise its profile in the North-American continent. A few years ago, I was consulting for National Geographic on a story about Russian rocket launches. When I mentioned that a brand-new launch pad for the Soyuz rocket was under construction in French Guiana, there was a long pause on the other end of the line. "Excuse me, where?" the reporter asked with untrusting voice, like I just claimed that it was on Uranus. As I was planning my trip, only a single US-based magazine on my long list of journalistic clients expressed interest in the story about the place.

Getting there

If getting there is half the fun, traveling to French Guiana certainly is. Although the European Space Agency runs frequent charters to French Guiana from Paris, those traveling from anywhere in North America will need to make two or three hops between Central-American islands before reaching Cayenne, Guiana's main city. My journey from New York included stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Fort-de-France on the island of Martinique, before I reached Guiana, what ended up to be an 11.5-hour trip.

All travelers to French Guiana should remember to take a yellow fever shot and have the proof of all vaccinations with them, otherwise they risk being stranded in Martinique, whose authorities have strict instructions not to allow unprotected passengers onboard Guiana-bound flights...

Europe’s new foothold in space… and in the tropics

On the dark and rainy night of March 9, 2008, in the midst of the seaside rainforest of French Guiana, a big crowd of reporters and dignitaries from the European Union gathered under a large wooden canopy, known locally as "carbet".

This multilingual group had come to the equatorial jungle not for a safari or the quest for an elusive Amazon tribe, but for a glimpse of Europe’s future in space. Just five kilometers away, flanked by lush palm trees, basked in brilliant lights and humid mist turning all physical objects into shadowy silhouettes stood the crown jewel of European engineering – the 775-ton Ariane-5 rocket. Under its payload fairing, it held the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, a barrel-shaped spacecraft combining the functions of a gas tanker, a UPS track and a garbage track for the International Space Station, ISS.

It was a nightmare for photographers, but a triumph for engineers, as Ariane-5 finally roared to life, for a few seconds turning night into day and then disappearing into the thick low clouds, with only its fiery tail left on the photographs.  

This mission opened a new pathway to the human outpost in the Earth orbit and, in the process, brought the European continent one step closer to the dream of manned space flight. The ATV has become Europe’s second spacecraft making its maiden voyage in 2008 – a rare feat after the end of the Space Race and the Cold War.  

First -- the Columbus science laboratory for the International Space Station -- rode into orbit from Florida onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in February. The ATV’s turn came just one month later. It would be the first transport ship to access the ISS from a site other than Cape Canaveral or the Russian spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. For the beleaguered space station, it was not a bragging statistics, but rather a matter of survival.

Back in 2004, the US government announced its decision to retire the Shuttle in 2010 and leave the space station business altogether a few years after. Without the Space Shuttle’s 18-wheeler cargo capacity, the ATV, which was previously slammed for being overweight and overpriced, suddenly emerged as the main high-volume supply line to the orbital outpost.

“It is not simply an important vehicle for Europe, but for all station partners,” said the Director General of the European Space Agency Jean-Jacque Dordain, speaking to a crowd of guests inside the futuristic Jupiter control building in the Guiana Space Center, “Without the ATV, the ISS operations wouldn't’t be possible after 2010” (the year when the Shuttle retires), Dordain added bluntly.

With the Shuttle launch pads in Florida waiting for their new missions, the Guiana Space Center hopes to carry on its launches to the ISS, and, likely, to acquire a new bigger future of its own. Rocketry has been French Guiana’s trademark since the 1970s, when a nascent European space program took here its shaky start. Today, an impressive display of Ariane launchers is the first thing, new arrivals see at Cayenne airport, French Guiana’s gateway… along with posters urging all visitors to get immediately vaccinated for the deadly mosquitoes-carried yellow fever.

This symbiosis of primordial life and the final frontier does not stop there. Visitors to Kourou, a town 60 kilometers north of Cayenne which serves as the spaceport’s residential area, wake up to a cacophony of quarreling exotic birds, straight from a Jurassic Park soundtrack.

From Kourou, a two-line road runs through a combination of seemingly uninhabited wetlands and rainforest, until it suddenly bursts into the scene of a sci-fi movie, complete with futuristic buildings, a helicopter pad and a 40-meter-tall replica of the Ariane-5 rocket. Machine gun-wielding paratroopers guard a heavily fortified fence, behind which a burgeoning rainforest competes for skyline with communications antennas, rocket assembly buildings and launch towers.

With all its vastness and scale, the spaceport in Kourou might be still in its infancy. Right behind the impeccable order of Ariane’s current launch facilities, a long stretch of excavated mud cuts through the jungle toward the new construction. A nearby road zigzags through the wilderness and soon another mind-boggling scene presents itself – a giant amphitheater-shaped flame pit with a cyclopean concrete platform resting over it on two pillars. To anybody familiar with the history of space exploration the sight is unmistakable – this is the launch complex for the Russian Soyuz rocket, the famous Gagarin pad magically transplanted into the equatorial jungle. It is like the Empire State Building rising from the middle of the Nevada desert.

Officially, the Soyuz is coming to Kourou to lift those commercial satellites deemed too light for the heavy-lifting Ariane-5. However, Russian engineers, who expect to complete the construction of the pad in 2009, say the new facility could be easily upgraded to support manned missions. The European Space Agency, ESA, has quietly conducted preliminary studies of just such a scenario.

What’s more, ESA has recently renewed its interest in the Ariane-5 rocket as the launcher of a next-generation manned spacecraft. If Europe commits to “man-rating” its flagship rocket, the space center in Kourou might need yet another launch pad. European space officials hinted that a long stretch of coastal land reserved within the Guiana Space Center can accommodate more rocket pads and current launch facilities were designed not to block any future expansion.


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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 23, 2008

Editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: May 23, 2008

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IMAGE ARCHIVE

Caribean

The Caribbean Islands serve as a bridge to French Guiana from North America. There are no direct flights from the US to Cayenne. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Cayenne airport

The airport in Cayenne, the main city in French Guiana, used to receive the supersonic Concorde, before it stopped flying. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


Palm

Click to enlarge

Carbet

A traditional Carib Indian house, made from citronelle, (lemon grass). These houses are also known as carbets. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


boat

Click to enlarge

Kourou river

In the midst of a watery jungle, scenes are often reminiscent of the movie Jurassic Park. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


girl

Girl from Cayenne. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak