Space Travel: Lift-Off among the Armadillos ; Deep in the Jungle, a Burst of Noise and Light Signals Another Ariane Launch. Andy Symington Watched Rocket Science at Work in French Guiana
Symington, Andy, The Independent (London, England)
Leicester: the final frontier - it doesn't have the right ring somehow. Certainly, the opening today of the National Space Centre in the East Midlands city is good news for all of us who find the cosmos fascinating. But looking at a static collection of objects on the outskirts of an unremarkable city is not quite the same as seeing the European space effort in full flight. For the real thing, you have to travel to a far-flung fragment of France. French Guiana to be exact.
Standing in the jungle night, the power of the spectacle was awe- inspiring. A starburst of light from the rocket preceded the sound; louder than thunder and more intense, it seemed to come from all directions as the rocket rose, slowly at first, then fast into the night sky. A warm wind washed over me as I watched the brightness fade and the local wildlife noisily registered their disapproval at the post-colonial invasion of their territory.
When the European Space Agency was looking for a suitable base for its operations, the criteria all pointed to a corner of South America that Evelyn Waugh once described as "gobs of empire." Locations close to the Equator are favourable for rocket launches apparently. During Europe's colonial years, Britain, Holland and France all established flimsy footholds in the Guianas. The British and Dutch territories were later granted independence and became Guyana and Surinam respectively. But French Guiana remains part of France - a fully fledged department, with a sitting representative in the European Parliament. Its proximity to the Equator made it the ideal location, with no tricky negotiations to impede progress.
A huge complex transformed a small fishing village named Kourou into a thriving modern town, and brought employment, revenue, and vitality to the whole country - without erasing traditional life. The previous day I'd been in deep jungle, travelling downstream in a dugout canoe, and visited Amerindian villages. In one small town, a market had been in full swing. I wandered around, mystified by the huge assortment of unfamiliar fruit and trying hard to remember the names of the ones I liked. I was encouraged to buy an armadillo, but didn't think I'd be able to smuggle it home, and wasn't sure that I was up to having it for dinner, local-style.
French Guiana, which is about the size of Ireland, sits uneasily between tiny Surinam and bulky Brazil, but also has plenty in common with the Caribbean islands it faces. The 180,000 inhabitants are mostly local Guianese, of Creole descent, though it's also home to expatriate French, Brazilians, and Laotians, repatriated from their villages destroyed in the Indochinese wars.
An overwhelming percentage of the country is untamed jungle, accessible only by river or by air. Nearly all settlement is concentrated in a narrow strip along the coast. It languished for centuries as a sleepy trading station and then as a convict colony for France's undesirables. Until 1964, that is. The presence of the space centre, as well as large subsidies from France, have given French Guiana the highest per capita income in South America, and prices are comparable to those in mainland France. This relative prosperity means that the majority of Guianese would prefer to remain part of the motherland rather than become independent.
The space centre itself is impressive. There is an excellent museum, and daily tours run over the complex. Everything is on a massive scale - standing next to the launching equipment is a dwarfing experience like few others. If you can time your visit to coincide with the launch of one of the Ariane rockets (of which there are about 10 a year), the experience is unforgettable. …