By Karlijn Korpershoek

If there is one thing certain about rocket launches, it’s their unpredictability. There are many technical steps and tests that need to be successfully completed before a “go for launch” and on top of that the weather has to be favourable on launch day. When I arrived in Kourou in October, knowing I would stay till at least early summer of 2023, I still had hope to see the first Ariane 6 launch as that would be a pivotal and important moment for the European space industry. But pretty quickly after arrival, that hope evaporated as the date was postponed to at least the end of 2023. However, no despair as Kourou (for now) has several other launchers up their sleeve.

And one of those would be launching just a month after arrival: the first commercial Vega-C launch, after a successful first flight in July, was set for take-off in mid-November. I had arranged a place at one of the observatories in Kourou. This is just one of the many ways to watch a launch here: many people opt to go to the beach; others watch from their own back gardens and others again find a high spot a bit further away from the town. But as this would be my own “maiden” launch, I decided to go official. Through signing up on a website from CNES, they distribute a limited number of places for the Ibis observation deck, just outside of the city. I had, by chance, seen the site by day. As for most places in Guyane, opening hours are unpredictable and badly communicated, and it is still not entirely clear to me when and if the site is generally open to the public. I could imagine it to be the perfect place to see a rocket lift off to space. It is up a steep road just behind the industrial area of Kourou, with a small shelter, some benches and a breathtaking view over the forest with the different launch sites in sight.

But the Vega-C  launch got postponed with a month to the end of December, so this meant my first rocket launch would actually be an Ariane 5 rocket, one of the last three before they retire the rocket that has been Europe’s flagship since 2005 (ESA, 2018). This particular launch carries a meteorological satellite developed by ESA in cooperation with Thales Alenia Space and OHB, as well as two telecommunications Intelsat satellites (Arianespace, 2022a). The latter is a name I come across a lot in the archives – Intelsat has played an important role since the conception of the Centre Spatial Guyanais and their first satellites were launched from Kourou in 1983. People had told me that, as a heavy weight rocket, the view is more impressive than the lighter Vega-C and that the beach provides a perfect view. So that is where I headed on December 13th. As mentioned in part 1 of this blog, I was slightly underwhelmed with the launch.

But luckily, I just had to wait one week before I got to have another shot: the postponed Vega-C got the green light for a launch on December 20th. This time, I had not signed up to see it at the observatory deck, in all honesty, because I assumed the registration would automatically be renewed once the new date was set – which it wasn’t.  Luckily, my flatmates came up with a great idea. We are all training for the Space Marathon: a big event in Kourou in March where an official marathon takes place from the beach front to the launch site and back. So we decided to combine the two things  of space and running also this time, and would take the opportunity to go for a night run up a small mountain in the forest and watch from there.

This was quite a different experience from watching it on the beach. Running up a hill, in the dark, in a very humid climate took more out of me than expected, but it made the arrival at the top with a view over the jungle and launch site only sweeter. And we were not the only ones who decided to choose this place. Around 15 others were standing ready to view, and in one case capture with a well set up camera, the launch. Some were clearly making a proper outing of it, with one group already having set up their hammocks in the carbet, a wooden house without walls that can be found throughout Guyane, and others having brought a large array of drinks. The atmosphere was calm, but with anticipation tangible in the air. My flatmate, who works for CSG, took us to the best place to watch given the trajectory of the rocket and pointed out to us the exact location where the rocket was spending its last minutes on Earth.

Where on the beach, I did not feel ready for the lift off, here I stared at the flickering red lights uninterrupted. And as soon as the clock hit 22.47, we witnessed an explosion of light and the whole jungle lit up. The rocket disappeared behind the clouds, mimicking the vivaciousness of a beautiful sunset. This time, I was mesmerised. The feeling was only reinforced when the sound arrived, and the jungle rumbled all around us. But pretty quickly the atmosphere turned from spectacular to confused. My flatmate behind me tells me the trajectory does not look good. We turn on the broadcast and it turns out that, sadly, this was true and the rocket had failed during the second stage, 2 mins and 27 seconds into the flight. Now no one is looking at the sky anymore, but rather staring at their phone, listening in and trying to figure out what went wrong. “C’est domage” [“It’s a shame”], a woman half tells us, half mumbles into the night sky. Strangely, the view of the launch itself was incredible nonetheless. It is only the knowledge of failure that distracts from the beautiful scene that had just appeared before us. We go home. I am quiet on the way down, thinking about what this means for space in French Guiana. For space in Europe.  

Even though I got to witness two launches in a span of a week, the European transportation system is in trouble. The Ariane 5 rocket I saw is one of the last three before the rocket is officially retiring, with the last two launches happening in the first half of 2023. After that, the Ariane 6 rocket will take over, but as mentioned, this one has already been postponed and there is even scepticism that the new date will be met. Meanwhile, the Vega-C launches will be halted until the inquiries into its failures have been completed (Arianespace, 2022b). Add to that the end of Soyuz launches from Kourou, anticipated for a while but accelerated after the invasion of Russia into Ukraine, and the launch site is not as busy as it hopes to be.

This situation is a big contrast to just over a year ago, when the James Webb Telescope, whose findings appear in end-of-year lists of great technological achievements/science discoveries, was launched from the Centre Spatial Guyanais (e.g. Kranking, C., & Spring, J. , 2022). But the landscape of the space industry has changed drastically since then. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, an industry that prides itself with its international collaborations, had to think hard and fast about how to handle this escalated situation. For Europe this meant it had to reconsider several missions, like the much anticipated ExoMars, as well as their relationship to ROSCOSMOS in general.

In the case of Kourou, it was Russia who made the first call. In reaction to European sanctions, they suspended their presence at the launch site and withdrew all their personnel from the territory (Malik, 2022). As a result, several planned missions were put in jeopardy. The Galileo navigation satellites set to launch in April 2022, will now have to wait for the Ariane 6 rockets (Gutierrez, 2022). Another satellite batch that was impacted by the Ukrainian invasion were the UK’s OneWeb telecommunication satellites. Those were finally launched from India, on a GSLV Mark III rocket, and the US, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 (Wall, 2022). Talking about precarious changes in the space industry in the last few months, we cannot overlook the potential long term impact of the tumultuous Twitter take-over by Elon Musk, and how that might have repercussions for his other ventures, including SpaceX (Cao, 2022). 

With all these turbulences in the space industry, it is no surprise that the European Space Agency has been very outspoken about aspirations for an independent European industry.  In its latest ministerial conference, the emphasis was largely on the importance of sovereignty, security and independence of the European space sector (ESA, 2022). Kourou is pivotal in ensuring this, as it is the only European launch site able to lift off heavy weight launchers. Italy, Germany and France pledged to increase the budget for the European launch industry, and there are already plans for the follow ups for Ariane 6. 

But with one retiring rocket, one unfinished one and one unreliable, those grandiose plans for the future will not help the present situation. Even though they were wondrous while they lasted, everything changed within those 2 minutes and 27 seconds on December 20th. 


Arianespace. (2022a). Ariane 5 successfully launches MTG-I1 satellite for EUMETSAT and two Galaxy satellites for Intelsat – Arianespace.

Arianespace. (2022b). Flight VV22 failure: Arianespace and ESA appoint an independent inquiry commission – Arianespace.

Cao, S. (2022). Elon Musk’s Twitter Antics Are Putting SpaceX’s Relationship with NASA to the Test | Observer.

ESA. (2022). ESA – ESA Council Meeting at Ministerial Level – Media Conference. 2022. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from

ESA. (2018). ESA – Ariane 5: the story behind the 100 launches…

Gutierrez, P. (2022). Galileo’s next ride moving towards operational status – Inside GNSS – Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design.

Kranking, C., & Spring, J. (2022). The Ten Most Significant Science Stories of 2022 | Science| Smithsonian Magazine.

Malik, T. (2022). Russia halts Soyuz rocket launches from French Guiana over European sanctions on Ukraine invasion | Space.

Wall, M. (2022). India’s biggest rocket launches 36 OneWeb internet satellites | Space.

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