By Karlijn Korpershoek

I am driving through Kourou with some friends. People are clapping; shouting and loudly claxoning to every car that passes by. Fireworks have gone off all night, and the air of success is tangible. People of all ethnicities and backgrounds are coming together to celebrate, something which in my three month stay so far I have not seen much in this town. Usually, people from different backgrounds often live and stay in relatively segregated neighbourhoods. In the Ville Spatiale, surely the most important thing to celebrate is the successful launch of a satellite set to change the face of humanity?

No. The jubilant scene is set on the 10th of December, the day that France beat England at the World Cup to reach the semi-finals. I gladly shouted along with everyone else: “Allez les Bleus!” because during the match, everyone is French. Throughout the world cup I see support for many different teams and French flags only just outnumber the Brazilian. This is hardly surprising given that French Guyana has a large influx of immigrants coming from all around the world. Many come over the Brazilian border on the East, just as there are many people coming from Suriname on the West. For that matter, people from all over the Caribbean, but particularly French speaking islands like Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti, move to Guyane. Aline Belfort, with a sense of irony, refers to Guyane as a Terre Promise, or promised land. Immigrants hope for a better life here, with more opportunities and social benefits, or simply to create a passage to continental Europe or the United States. And let’s not forget the large number of metropolitan French living in Kourou, either here to work at the launch base or to take up other jobs with lucrative salaries. Add to that other continental Europeans that work for the various companies working at the space centre, and you have what tourist guides refer to as a “mosaic of ethnicities”.

So when it comes to supporting a team at the World Cup, you can essentially find a supporter for almost all of the teams here. The support for the Brazilians and the French is the loudest; even when not watching the game, you can keep score by tallying up the number of fireworks set off. Throughout the city, cars and shops are filled with red-white-blue flags and the Brazilian yellow-green. But there is also strong support for the Argentines, and even for “my” team of the Netherlands, because as someone explained to me: the Dutch have a high number of players with Surinamese or Antillean backgrounds, just like many people living here.

But when the French play, everybody gathers behind them. Even though while watching the game, people stay (largely) within their neighbourhoods and there is a clear difference between the central Mediatheque, the cultural centre and main so-called ‘fan zone’, and Les Roches, the neighbourhood where many metropolitans live. Afterwards however, everyone starts blending together. The scenes on the street are celebratory and everyone shouts and claxons in happiness to everyone. It is a scene that after three months in this city that is hard to figure out, comes as a happy surprise.

It is just a few days later, on December 13th, that I get to see my first rocket launch. I am not sure what to expect from the launch, but I almost anticipate similar scenes to that of the World Cup game. Having spent a lot of time around people working in the space industry in the past few years, there always seemed something mystical and very exciting about launches. “Have you seen one?” is a recurring question and sometimes it feels like seeing a launch has even attained a “rite de passage” status in the space sector. So a jubilant atmosphere, celebrations and excitement are the least of what I expect.

The launch is of one of the last three Ariane 5 rockets and it being a heavy weight rocket, people told me that the sight is even more impressive than its lighter weight colleagues and that the beach is one of the best places to view it. The launch was set for 17.30 Kourou time, so half an hour before I made my way to location, not being sure how well attended a launch actually would be. On an average day at 17.00, the sea front is pretty empty aside from a few runners, kite surfers and people on an afternoon walk. But when I enter today, it looks much more like a well-known seaside picture: people on blankets with self-brought food and drinks; groups of people greeting each other excitedly and kids playing on the sand. The whole crowd tensed up the closer we got to 17.30.

Meanwhile, I had a clumsy typical field day moment: wanting to capture the first launch on camera, at 17.28 my camera flickered and died: “empty battery”. Scrambling for my phone instead, I hear gasps and look up. And there it is: a bright light illuminating an already very bright day. The sight is impressive, but only really resonates when after a while the sound waves also reach us. The ground trembles and the air rumbles, and we are seeing the Ariane 5 rocket make its way to outer space, leaving behind a large white trail in the sky to which airplane contrails shade in comparison. There is a small attempt for a round of applause, but only a handful join in.

Even though it was impressive, I was expecting… more? Maybe it is because of the stories I have heard, or the many videos I have seen before. Or maybe it was because of the stark contrast: a few hours earlier, I had been watching football surrounded by enthused fans and even though the game was “just” Argentina-Croatia, the atmosphere had been electric and compared to that, this was… less exciting? More contained. More metropolitan. I could not help but notice that the majority of those on the beach with me, are white and most likely, from the metropole. It might be a quick generalisation, but it was too obvious not to notice.

The limited audience gave me a strange feeling. What is the magic of space if it only entices such a particular audience? It’s a feeling I have had since arrival here – almost every time I talk to someone who lives here but does not work for the space industry, outer space seems distant. Unimportant. A way to use the land, or to make money, but something that happens faraway.  Outer space is performed in Europe, its passage just executed here. To some extent, the audience of the launch seemed to reflect that sentiment.

Having spent years hearing about the connective nature of the space industry, which is supposed to bring a shared curiosity of the universe into existence, I am naively surprised with how little I am seeing that here in Kourou. But what has shook me more, is that rather than a disgust or dislike of the space industry, it is the indifference that is most palpable. To what extent that indifference exists, and how these initial impressions will impact my research theme that is supposed to centralise space, remains to be seen and explored in the next months. But what I am left with, is that when it comes to the ability to unite a country, it is 1 for football, 0 for outer space. 

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