Notes on the Global Condition: Strike Stops Rocket Launch

Strike stops rocket launch. It’s not a headline you see every day. Prompting the question: Where in the world do space travel and labour relations intersect?

Modern space programs have their origins in the mid-century military-industrial complexes of Germany, the US and the Soviet Union. Their labour regimes were those of the military, crash R&D programs, lab science, or coercive forced labour. In its origins, rocketry was associated with slave labour in the ghastly caverns of the Dora V2 production line in 1944. In Sci-Fi of the 1960s and 1970s, fantasies of extra-terrestrial forced labour abound. As it turned out, the advent of commercial satellite launching in 1980s coincided with the decline of industrial militancy and the end of the Soviet Union.

But on March 2o 2017, a launch at Europe’s premier spaceport in French Guiana was stopped dead by a general strike. Barricades thrown up around the launch facility at Kourou blocked the movement of a 180-foot-tall Ariane 5 rocket to its launch pad. Instead of blasting two satellites – one Brazilian and one South Korean into orbit – the rocket waited in the final assembly building under the guard of the fearsome French foreign legion.

Guiana is one of the world’s most important launch facilities for global telecommunications and military space hardware. It is an ideal location because of its proximity to the equator and the low density of local population, which minimizes the risk of collateral damage in case of launch failure. Rockets can be fired into orbit, high across the Atlantic in the direction of West Africa. In 2016 the gigantic 850 square kilometer CSG— Centre Spatial Guyanais— was the second-busiest spaceport in the world after Cape Canaveral in the United States. Arianespace, the operator of the site a joing undertaking of the European aerospace industry, is locked in fierce competition with its American competitor United Launch Alliance and China’s state-backed rocket builder. Arianespace is jointly owned by the.

The timetable is tight. According to space business websites, other payloads for 2017 include: “A Russian-made Soyuz rocket is next in line at the tropical space base, slated to loft the Boeing-built SES 15 communications satellite into orbit to provide in-flight Internet connectivity for airline passengers, and support government, networking and maritime customers across North America. SES 15 also hosts a payload for the FAA’s Wide-Area Augmentation System to enhance airline navigation and safety across the United States. That will be followed by an Ariane 5 launch in early June with the ViaSat 2 and Eutelsat 172B commercial communications satellites. That launch was originally targeted for April 25.”

And the pace of business will only pick up: “The Italian government announced earlier this month that two of its next-generation radar surveillance satellites will launch on Soyuz and Vega-C rockets from French Guiana in 2018 and 2019, and the European Space Agency said a small space telescope designed to study planets around other stars will blast off with one of the Italian reconnaissance platforms on a Soyuz mission next year.”

Arianespace cannot afford to misfire. Its US competitor is rolling out ever-cheaper launchers and Arianespace is pushing its own new vehicle, the Ariane 6. “If we can take up launch campaigns again in the next few days, we could do our initial planned twelve launches for 2017, if all goes well for the rest of the year,” Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation for the European Space Agency, told Quartz. “If we are missing that in the next two weeks, then we are seriously endangering the twelve launches. We will only know at the end of the conflict. I sincerely hope that this conflict ends soon.”

The difficult for Europe’s space entrepreneurs is that though Guiana may be the ideal geographic location, in social and political terms, the former French colony offers a less than steady launch platform.

Colonized by France in 1504, having failed as a sugar plantation, Guiana was converted to a penal colony. It was here that Dreyfus was imprisoned in the dreadful Devil’s Island prison that inspired Papillon. After being liberated from the Vichyites, it was granted the status of an overseas department in 1946. The prison complex was finally closed in the mid 1950s, leaving behind a population of broken men. Construction of the Guiana Space Center began in 1965, when it became clear that France would soon have to close down its first-choice rocket launching facility in the Algerian Sahara. The first launch from Guiana of the rocket, Veronique, took place in April 1968.

Video of Veronique’s launch here:

When the European Space Agency was launched in 1975, France offered Guyana as its main spaceport. And the first Ariane 1 rocket of the ESA blasted off on Christmas Eve 1979.

To provide security the French Foreign Legions 3rd Infantry regiment took up permanent residence in Guyana in September 1973, doing much of the roughest engineering work necessary to open a road to the Brazilian frontier.

In the 1970s Guiana was both the site of abortive French development experiments and served as a dumping ground for Hmong refugees from Laos. Today, its income per capita at 15,000 euros is a fraction that of France. Nevertheless, as a full department of France and a territory of the EU it is hugely attractive for migrants from neighboring Suriname, Brazil and elsewhere in Central America. As a result, Guiana’s population has exploded from 35,000 in 1961 to 125,000 in 1990 and 250,000 in 2017, with neither infrastructure nor employment keeping up. The medical facilities, which were originally built for French astronauts, are now slated for privatization. Schools are so poor that only 13 % of local youth achieve a Bac high school degree and 10,000 kids are without schooling altogether. Around the Kourou space center the settlements are run down and dilapidated. Further out, in the heavily forested territory, conditions are even more basic with 30 % of the 250,000 population getting by without electricity or running water. Conditions are worsened by the dependence of the territory on imported food. Indeed, Guiana even imports lumber, because its rain forest territory is required by Paris to serve as a carbon offset in climate change talks. The only flourishing industries are drug smuggling and illegal gold mining. Deep in the forest, the miners fight a running battle with the local gendarmerie backed up by the foreign legion.

François Mitterand himself put the question in 1985: « Comment pouvons-nous continuer à lancer des fusées sur fond de bidonvilles ? »

A generation later the contrasts persisted. Writing for the Independent in 2009,  Alain de Botton, was moved to this Evelyn Waughesque description of Kourou:

“A high-tech space port was built on a strip of jungle north-west of the capital. A new town, Kourou, was constructed next door, designed to house workers and their families in functional concrete apartment blocks laid out along wide thoroughfares with grandiose names such as the Avenue de Gaulle and the Esplanade des Étoiles. I travelled to French Guiana on a press trip to witness the launch of a Japanese satellite. The group was billeted together in the Atlantis Hotel which, though only newly built, was fast surrendering itself to tropical mould and the incursions of jungle fauna. The space town of Kourou was in no better shape than the hotel on its perimeter. Evoking comparison with Chandigarh and Brasilia, two other examples of modern architectural indifference to issues of context and culture, it was in an advanced stage of decomposition after only a few decades of existence. Beside the man-made lake, unshaded wooden benches rotted unused: they had been deployed to provide respite on the kind of afternoon stroll which it had not yet occurred to anyone in the tropics to take. The concrete façades of buildings had buckled in a climate which from April to July could deliver in a single week as much rainfall as northern France might experience in an entire year. However, once inside the heavily fortified gates of the space centre itself, the situation was transformed. Immaculate buildings were dedicated to the assembly of satellites, the preparation of Ariane boosters and the storage of propellants. There were three control centres, a generating plant, barracks for a division of the Foreign Legion, two swimming pools, and a restaurant specialising in the cuisine of the Languedoc. These were scattered across hectares of marsh and jungle, generating bewildering contrasts for visitors who might walk out of a rocket-nozzle-actuator building and a moment later find themselves in a section of rainforest sheltering round-eared bats and white-eyed parakeets, before arriving at a propulsion facility whose corridors were lined with Evian dispensers and portraits of senior managers.”

For Guianan technicians employed at the space facility, who have to live these contrasts on a daily basis, the experience is painful and increasingly unacceptable. ““Kourou is a political, technological and financial success. It is the flagship of European technology,” Youri Antoinette, an engineer at the space centre and spokesman for the residents of Kourou, told AFP. “But once you leave the space centre, you’re in an under-developed country.” The unemployment rate in Guiana is 23 percent, and nearly twice this for 18-25-year-olds, while per capita income is about half of the rate in mainland France.”

An independence movement emerged in the 1970s and faced violent repression between 1997 and 2000.

The space port has reacted to the tensions by upping it security measures. A rather revealing insight into its security arrangements can be found at the website of the firm that provides it with surveillance hardware. The arrival of Russia’s Soyuz launcher system in Guiana in 2011 provoked a further tightening of security.

The perimeter fences cannot, however, block protests from within the labour force of the space center itself. The first wave of protests to stop space launches in Guiana took place in 1989. In 2011 the operators of the radar tracking system went on strike. In March of 2017 it was the drivers of the shuttle with which the rocket is moved from the assembly hall to the launch pad, who stopped work. As one report commented: “That issue was resolved within a few days, but a wider net of demonstrations across French Guiana spread, with many citizens raising concerns about the privatization of a local hospital, high crime and poor educational opportunities in the region, which is a department with the same political and legal rights as the rest of France.”

The protest was led by a “Collective of 500 Brothers” formed earlier in 2017 to protest Guaina’s shocking disparities. It gathers 37 union and community groups under the umbrella of the Guianese Workers’ Union (UGT). Following the stoppage on the base the UGT voted for an unlimited general strike on March 27. They blocked roads to Brazil and Suriname and closed the airport and public facilities. A mass demonstration on Tuesday 28 March mobilized a giant demonstration. Estimates of the numbers involved vary between 10,000 and 40,000 people, out of a population of 250,000. The 500 freres had grown to 20,000 freres.

When they were invited into the Kourou space launch facility for talks, 30 leading activists staged a sit in refusing to leave the facility until their terms were met. “We won’t move. The situation is stuck and Guiana is blocked. You are blocked. We want the billions we have asked for,” protest leader Manuel Jean-Baptiste told the director of the space centre.

Protest leaders demanded more 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in emergency funding to improve conditions in French Guiana.” They called for a “Marshall Plan” for Guiana.

What the protestors demand is that the French authorities recognize the spectacular disparity in Guiana between conditions inside the high tech space center and in the community around it.

The French political establishment has been slow to respond. Macron embarrassed himself by referring to the territory as an island.

Marine Le Pen has been more on point. Indeed, she has visited the territory in person. But the Front gave the situation a characteristic twist. Le Pen indicts the cruel ‘minimum service” offered by France to its Guianan citizens. But demands that this be solved by expelling the third of the population that is foreign born.

The Guianan’s themselves are more far-reaching in their demands. They want comprehensive development. ““There are rails to transport satellites onto a rocket, and there’s no train, no metro, no night bus,” Stéphane Miatti, a receptionist, said at a March 29 protest in Cayenne. This sense of injustice has even informed the name of the group behind the protests: “Pou Lagwiyann Dékolé,” a Creole phrase roughly translatable as “Let French Guiana Lift Off.” It’s a twist on one of the refrains of the movement, pulled from a 17-year-old protest track from the now-deceased Guianese rapper Freaky Fan: “La fusée décolle mais la Guyane reste au sol,”—”the rocket takes off, but French Guiana stays on the ground.””

All told the collective of the protestors outlined an agenda of 400 demands, touching on everything from education to security to fisheries. They turned down an initial offer of 1.1 billion euros from the government, demanding instead an aid package worth €3 billion.

“The foundations—education, health, energy—if we don’t have these things we need, in ten years we’ll have to protest again,” said Rimane, of the Guianese Lighting Workers’ Union, at the April 4 march on the space center. “That’s not logical.” “We knew well that, by blocking Europe’s space center, there would be a global repercussion,” said Mathias, who, nearly a month ago was among the first protesters to block the roundabout. “It’s real pressure.” … Mathias said the message to Europe had been sent. “It was to tell them, look, if you don’t unblock the situation in French Guiana, the space center will stay blocked,” he said.”

Hollande’s initial response was dismissive. But as the situation deteriorated and the blockade held, Paris changed tack. Both the Interior Minister and Overseas Territories Ministers scrambled to Guiana. Ericka Bareigts the Overseas Territories Minister declared on her arrival: ““After so many years, the honor falls to me to give, beyond my small person, beyond the authority I have, my excuses to the Guyanese people”, acknowledging years of under-investment from Paris.

The upshot is a package of 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) of immediate aid, and the announcement on 21 April of a “priority review” of another 2.1 billion euro ($2.3 billion) funding package.”

For sake of comparison the launch activity generates $ 1.5 bn annually, which Arianespace officials believe to be c. 15 % of Guiana’s GDP. So if $ 3 bn were to be delivered from France, this would be rather more significant than the Marshall Plan.

With a fix in place, whilst Guiana awaits its Marshall Plan, on the evening of 4 May Flight VA236 blasted off from Guiana with its 10 ton load. 28 minutes later its Brazilian satellite was deployed into geostationary orbit followed by its Korean sister 8 minutes later. The Brazilian satellite, “will operate from an orbital position of 75 deg. West with Ka- and X-band transponders, providing sovereign and secure means for Brazilian government and defense strategic communications, as well as high-quality Internet services to 100 percent of the Brazilian territory as part of the National Broadband Plan.” The Korean “bird” will cover not only its own country but “the Philippines, the Indochinese Peninsula, India and Indonesia.”

This is how de Botton described such an even 8 years earlier: “At 8pm on the day of the launch, we were driven in the darkness, under armed guard, to an observational site in the jungle only 3km from where the boosters would be ignited. Across the humid night, Ariane launch stood out on its platform, illuminated by a set of arc lamps around which dense clouds of tropical insects were dancing frenziedly. Deeper in the jungle, there were peccaries and spider monkeys, giant anteaters and harpy eagles, while in this unlikely outpost of air-conditioned Einsteinian ambition, something was preparing to leave the planet. All shipping and aircraft had been cleared from an arc extending to the West African coast. Ariane’s engines took their last breaths of oxygen through a thick umbilical cord. Every remaining human had been removed from the area, all commands would from now on be executed mechanically. It was hard not to feel some of the same sadness that might attend the departure of an ocean liner or the lowering of a coffin. Dix, neuf, huit, sept, retrait des ombilicaux… It was peculiar to hear a sequence so indelibly associated, via cinema, with Cape Canaveral being enunciated in another tongue. At cinq, there was a dull sound as if a shell had gone off, and a first puff of smoke rose from the bottom of the launcher. By trois, white billows had enveloped its base, and on the cue of un, et décollage, the rocket ripped itself off its pad in immaculate silence. When the noise reached us a second later, we recognised it as the loudest any of us had ever heard, louder of course than thunder, jets and the explosive charges set off in quarries, the concentrated energies of tens of millions of years of solar energy being released in a few moments. The rocket rose, and there was a collective gasp, a most naive, amazed Ahh, inarticulate and primordial, as all of us for a moment forgot ourselves – our education, our manners, our upbringing, our sense of irony – to follow the fine white javelin on its ascent through the southern skies. There was light, too: the richest orange of the bomb-maker’s palette. The rocket became a giant burning bulb in the firmament, letting us see as if by daylight the beach, the town of Kourou, the jungle, the space centre’s buildings, and the faces of our stunned fellow spectators. The scene brought to mind the moments of smoke and fire that were invoked by the Old Testament prophets to make their audiences shudder before the majesty of their lord. And yet this modern impression of divinity was being generated by the most secular and pagan of machines: science has taught us to upstage the gods. … Just a few days earlier, I had been in a room with the satellite that, right now, was already reaching the upper atmosphere. The rocket boosters had been jettisoned somewhere in between and were parachuting their way down, halfway to Africa by now. An odd quiet settled over us again. A nature-made wind could be heard through the trees, then the call of a monkey.”

What the events of the spring of 2017 have done is to add to this scene populated by gods, satellites, Western journalists and monkeys, the politicized, articulate voices of Guyana’s people, its technicians, nurses, check out clerks, politcos and disaffected youth.


How a handful of South American protestors took Europe’s space program hostage

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Operations resume at European-run launch base in French Guiana

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