Exploring Kourou: The ESA/Arianespace Tour in French Guiana


One of the many control centers inside the ESA/Arianesapce facility at Kourou, French Guiana

For nearly 40 years Arianespace has been involved in sending rockets into space. The company uses the European Space Agency launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana as a geographic advantage. Being closer to the equator means heavier payloads for the same fuel costs/weight. Exploring the Kourou facility shows off the history of both the ESA and Arianeaspace well. With an evening VA237 launch scheduled during my visit we were fortunate to spend most of the day touring the facility, both to see how things currently operate and to catch a glimpse of history scattered across the site.

Rocket assembly facilities, well protected.
Rocket assembly facilities, well protected.


The scale of rocket launch facilities is hard to explain. The rockets themselves are huge, of course. An Ariane 5 rocket stands some 50 meters tall on top of a launch platform that can both hold it in place during the launch and also withstand the forces of that launch experience and be reused. The highlight of the tour to me involved standing next to the rocket being prepared for the following launch. Alas, no photos in that building, but getting to be up close under the rocket was pretty incredible.

A pre-launch tour of the site incldues a great view of the Ariane 5 rocket
A pre-launch tour of the site incldues a great view of the Ariane 5 rocket

The rest of the operation scales similarly large. The closest observation location for an Ariane 5 launch is the Toucan site, roughly five kilometers away. The Jupiter control center is even further away. And the Arianespace facility has multiple different launch zones set up for the different rockets that are handled by the company. The smaller Vega rockets have a dedicated area as does the joint operation with Russia to launch Soyuz rockets. Plus the Ariane 6 launch facilities are under construction in their own area on the grounds. The net result of this is a massive amount of land across which the launch facilities are spread. We got to see most of it from the bus.

Yeah, they take security seriously around here. Rikers Island might have less razor wire involved.
Yeah, they take security seriously around here. Rikers Island might have less razor wire involved.


We got up close to the Soyuz launch site, standing on the lip of the exhaust bowl over which a rocket is situated to launch. Again, the scale is hard to explain but everything is massive.

The Soyuz launch site includes a MASSIVE exhaust bowl to deflect exhaust as the rocket departs
The Soyuz launch site includes a MASSIVE exhaust bowl to deflect exhaust as the rocket departs

Leaving the Soyuz launch site our bus pulled off the road briefly, yielding to a delivery of Soyuz components arriving for a future mission. Not surprisingly, the rockets always get priority around here.

The other interesting thing to me about the facilities is the collection of abandoned bits that scatter the grounds. Buildings no longer in use are left behind, presumably waiting for the jungle to return and take back the land. I don’t think we’re talking about Angkor Wat levels of reclamation here but give it a few centuries and we might get to that point.

"Retired" rocket components decorate the roadside around the ESA facility in Kourou, French Guiana
“Retired” rocket components decorate the roadside around the ESA facility in Kourou, French Guiana
The jungle slowly reclaims an old rocket assembly building at the ESA/Arianespace Kourou facility
The jungle slowly reclaims an old rocket assembly building at the ESA/Arianespace Kourou facility

We had briefings about the facilities and specifics about the two satellites launching that night. We visited control rooms and bunkers and talked with engineers and executives.

One of the many control centers inside the ESA/Arianesapce facility at Kourou, French Guiana
One of the many control centers inside the ESA/Arianesapce facility at Kourou, French Guiana

All in all, a spectacular lead up to VA237, the launch of ViaSat-2 and Eutelsat 172B on an Ariane 5 rocket that evening.



My tour was hosted by Arianespace, ViaSat and Eutelsat, the companies running the rocket launch that night. That meant we got a special, increased access version of the tour. There is a public tour of the facility also available but it is a reduced itinerary. Still some incredibly cool stuff going on no matter how you get in to the site.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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