In February 2023, ISU Alumni – Myles Johnson (ISU SSP 21′) and Samy Nicolas Bouchalat (ISU ISP 20′, MSS 22′) visited French Guiana with members of the ‘Young ESA’ team, to experience the rainforests, islands, cities, and space facilities of the South American country referred to as the “Land of Water and Space”. Here they provide some insights into their fascinating trip.
Each year, an average of 2-3 expeditions set off from Paris Orly Airport, each taking ~25-30 young space professionals from all corners of Europe to French Guiana. The purpose of the trip is to visit the Guiana Space Centre, where ESA launches Ariane and VEGA rockets, and to gain a cultural understanding of the country which houses this facility. The location of the launch facility, albeit far from mainland Europe, is situated close to the equator and hence takes advantage of less expensive access to geostationary orbits.
As the participants first approached the international airport in Cayenne (the capital city), it was possible to glimpse the scale of the rainforest in French Guiana from the skies; spread out over 100s of kilometers, the rainforest appears mostly undiscovered. Within only a few hours they were given their first experience of the local fauna/flora.
On Day 1, the participants were assigned vans and drove into the rainforest over the adventurous, crumbling road infrastructure; much like an episode of Top Gear, on the way to their first stop, known as the ‘Kaw Wetlands’. This stunning ecosystem is situated in a valley which floods each year to a height of ~2.5 m, inviting seasonal land and water-based fauna including caiman, monkeys, snakes and even cows.
This sense of adventure continued over Days 2 & 3 as participants traveled by van and riverboat to different locations in the rainforest. A highlight for many, was the opportunity to stay the night in a treehouse suspended 10 m off the ground: sleeping in hammocks, listening to nature and swimming the nearby Amazonian-style river.
Following the rainforest section of the trip there was a brief return to civilization with a VIP tour of Guiana Space Centre, which included tours of the mission control center, launcher control, radar and tracking, integration, weather, communications and launch pad facilities. For this expedition, the participants were treated to the sight of ESA’s JUICE probe to Jupiter and its moons in the Payload Facility cleanrooms and a first sneak-peak of an Ariane 64.
After the launch facility visit, the trip then took to the open seas, where participants went island hopping between paradise-like islands on a catamaran. The original use for these islands was much less desirable than the scenery may allude. In fact, these islands housed prisons and hospitals, which inspired the stories of Papillon.
This year’s trip also coincided with the end of Mardi Gras. It was during this evening of celebration that Myles and Samy met with local ISU Alumni, Karlijn Korpershoek. Karlijn is currently conducting field work in French Guiana for her PhD thesis on the social impact of spaceports. She has been living in Kourou for four months now and was very excited and happy to exchange experiences and thoughts with the entire group who had welcomed her with open arms. It was a chance to share some initial results that emphasize the complexity of a European launch site on South American soil. There is a large cultural and social diversity living in the region – evident in the carnival – with people being impacted to varying degrees by the launch site and not all for the better. The group asked her thoughtful and challenging questions that will inform her work moving forward. The evening demonstrated the power of the network enabled by Juan de Dalmau and ISU: there is always a familiar face around the corner.
Lastly, the participants traveled to Cayenne, and the Hmong village of Cacao, which included the chance to explore and taste the local food at the marketplaces. Some participants even got the chance to take a local flight over the capital city.
All this was made possible by experienced tour guides; Juan de Dalmau (alumnus and past president of ISU 2018 – 2021) and Mara Rosado. Juan is a cultural veteran of French Guiana having lived in the country for over 9 years whilst working for both ESA and CNES and raising three kids. Incidentally, Juan founded this trip as a request from ISU students who attended SSP2000 in Chile. Mara Rosado, also a veteran of the Guiana Space Centre who joined this trip some years ago and has now made Kourou her hometown with her family.
So, would the participants recommend this trip to future ESA YGT and ISU students/alumni. The answer is a resounding… YES.
This trip is an opportunity to step foot in a country with well-preserved nature; enabling an authentic experience of the flora/fauna of the rainforest with all its wonders and dangers. This became almost immediately evident to the participants after swimming in the Kaw Wetlands, only to be greeted moments later by a 2-3 m Caiman.
The day visit to Space Centre Guiana is a great opportunity to experience the launch chain and learn from the experts who have helped to launch numerous missions, and at a time where new processes and procedures are being developed for the incumbent Ariane 6 and return of Vega-C. This is especially useful if you have an interest in working at the launch site, as both managers and HR staff are happy to discuss open positions.
The trip combines new life experiences in an environment scarcely seen by the Western world, with the tour of a facility designed to launch behemoth, complex machines into space. In this sense and many others, French Guiana is a country of polar opposites. ISU students/alumni would find this an interesting case study given the university’s focus on intercultural collaboration and the joining/communication of ideas.
Both Myles and Samy conclude by saying that they cannot recommend this adventure to any higher degree:
“If you attend, you might just find that it changes your life.”