How France's space ambitions took off in French Guiana

A Soyuz rocket has blasted two satellites into orbit – and boosted France's dream of making Europe a space power

At 7.30 on Friday morning, a Russian Soyuz rocket rose on a pillar of smoke and fire to put a brace of European navigation satellites in orbit round the Earth. This was the 1,777th launch of a Soyuz, the most successful space transport system ever devised. Early versions of the rocket put the first Sputnik and the world's first astronaut Yuri Gagarin into space. When it comes to reliability, there is nothing to touch a Soyuz.

But Friday's launch was far from being a routine affair – for on this occasion Soyuz was taking off, not from its usual launch pad in Kazakhstan, but from one that has been built in the Amazonian jungle of French Guiana. A staggering £500m has been spent by France's aerospace companies and agencies to create a centre for Soyuz here in the 750 square kilometres of rainforest and mangrove swamp that have been dedicated to Europe's spaceport.

This whole endeavour – created in a landscape that is home to armadillos, jaguars and anacondas – is part of France's pursuit of a dream to make Europe an independent space power, with itself at the helm. Key to that ambition has been the creation of the spaceport, Europe's own range of giant Ariane launchers – and now the involvement of Russia.

The contrast between this vaulting Gallic ambition and Britain's own declining interest in developing launchers in recent years is striking, though in truth the omens go back further than that. I came to French Guiana in 1982 to watch the very first commercial blastoff of an Ariane rocket, which had a UK-built satellite, Marecs B, on board. Journalists, industrialists and politicians gathered in the tiny control room to watch the final countdown. The rocket soared into the night sky and almost immediately staff began opening bottles of champagne. (Unlike the Americans, the French know how to celebrate a launch.)

Then the news broke: signals from the launcher ended abruptly. Glasses were left half-filled and a hurried news conference was held in an old shed behind the control room. The rain drummed down on the iron roof as a French official explained, in the sticky heat, that a turbo-pump failure on a third-stage engine had doomed the satellite, which had ended up falling back to Earth into the Atlantic.

At this point, I received a sharp dig in my back. "Ask Monsieur Froggie who built the pump," hissed a member of the UK team that constructed Marecs B. So I raised my hand and asked the question.

The official looked mortified. "I regret the pump was built in France," he replied, with an expression that suggested he had just been chewing his own socks. There was an immediate cheer from the Brits behind me – and consternation on the faces of the French. The UK may have lost a very expensive satellite but at least we had embarrassed the Froggies. All had not been lost.

Not long afterwards, the UK government abandoned all involvement in developing future versions of Ariane. Hence the lack of Brits at last week's Soyuz launch. The ascent of Soyuz, during a brief respite in the morning's equatorial downpour, was watched by hundreds of officials and guests – from the French aerospace industry, from the European Space Agency, from Russia, and from the EU, which had funded the Galileo navigation satellites that were carried aloft. There may have been other Brits there but I didn't encounter any.

Europe's presence in French Guiana has obvious colonial undertones though those who made homes here also represent a major boost to a territory noted for its poor soil and lack of agriculture and whose economy has become reliant on the space launch business.

As to the origins of Europe's space interests here, these involve an unusual mix of factors. Simple global politics are involved, for a start. French Guiana is treated as a basic department by France and is run like the Haute-Savoie or the Ardèche. The euro rules here, stamps are French and the fire engines at the space centre bear the legend Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. A meal of prawns or the local fish, the acoupa, at one of the many fine seafood restaurants in Kourou or Cayenne is almost always accompanied by a decent Bordeaux or Sancerre. So when it came to looking for a location for a space base, the French decided, in effect, to build one at home and talked the rest of Europe into joining them.

However there is another, more intriguing factor: the force of gravity. French Guiana is just a few degrees north of the equator, which brings unexpected benefits when it comes to launching rockets. Our planet spins fastest at the equator, generating a force that effectively gives rockets a massive extra kick into space after blastoff and so makes it easier for them to overcome Earth's gravity en route to orbit. In fact, you can launch almost twice the payload, for the same amount of fuel, if you launch here as compared with some northerly spaceports, including those used by Soyuz. Hence Russia's decision to agree to move some of its rocketry here.

For good measure, French Guiana is bordered by the Atlantic and by the Amazonian rainforest. An out-of-control launcher here has little chance of causing serious damage or loss of life. As a result of this odd combination of factors, 1,600 men and women – most of them French – have made their homes in this strange corner of South America over the past 30 years, with the addition of a further 350 Russians since 2008.

This is Europe's answer to the space coast at Cocoa Beach near Cape Canaveral, in Florida – though it is a far more exotic location. Florida has been turned to lawns and theme parks. In French Guiana, the jungle is never more than a few yards away. Monkeys, snakes, unpleasantly large insects and many other strange creatures are common and every member of staff has a tale of a startling encounter. One senior press official told me he was walking his dog, which suddenly began yowling and pulling back on its lead. A glance upwards revealed a crouching jaguar above him in a tree. The official grabbed his dog and backed off at speed.

As to the Russians, it is unclear how they will transform life here – though there is no doubt they will have considerable impact on the hopes of Europe, and France, to maintain their space ambitions. If nothing else, the fact that Soyuz also has a proven record of putting men and women in space has considerable significance. "We are definitely thinking about a manned spaceflight, though we haven't got a mission in mind yet," Patrick Loire, vice-president of rocket company Arianespace, told me.

It is not obvious when, or if, such a launch will take place. Equally, it remains to be seen if Britain will ever get round to rethinking its attitude to the building and launching of rockets and satellites – a business that has generated billions of euros for Europe – or if it wants to continue to keep its distance from this remarkable little country where the jungle and rocket science merge.


Robin McKie in Kourou, French Guiana

The GuardianTramp

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