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(Historical context for the events described in this section):

1962 March 18: The accords d'Evian (Evian agreement) was reached between the French government and the Provisory Government of the Algerian Republic, giving independence to Algeria. (In the wake of the agreement, French military installations, including rocket launching site in Hammaguir, were to be evacuated.)


The Diamant B rocket on the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana circa 1970. Credit: CNES

The laws of orbital mechanics push rocket designers to seek prospective launch sites as close to the Equator as possible. A space vehicle launched due East anywhere on the Equator can use the Earth's rotation to its full advantage, maximizing its payload and minimizing its cost. Such unique requirement made the jungle-covered South American coast of French Guiana an ideal choice for a future European space hub.

An exotic ocean-side coastline, near the town of Kourou, located just five degrees north of the Equator, would provide a starting point for a safe flight corridor over the Atlantic Ocean and give the rocket an extra 460 meters per second in velocity from the natural Earth rotation. (221) Ironically, before the coming of the spaceport, the area was mostly known in France for a notorious penal colony located on the nearby Devil's Island.

Kourou at a Glance:

5 degrees 18' North
Longitude 52.8 degrees West
Completed 1968

The origin of the space center in Kourou

Although many popular accounts of the Space Race boil it down to a competition between two sides -- the US and the USSR -- its real story is much more diverse and complicated. Before and after World War II, rocket science flourished in Western Europe, namely in the United Kingdom and France. (276) In 1945, the latter two countries launched their own "mini-race" to capture German secret weapons, along with much more publicized efforts by the United States and by the Soviet Union. Similarly, the launch of the Soviet Sputnik-1 in 1957, caused intensive soul-searching not only in the United States, but in Europe as well.

In 1962, Algeria became independent from France, leading to an agreement to dismantle the Sahara-based Hammaguir launch site by July 1967. The French military decided to move its missile testing to the Landes Test Center near Biscarosse. However, the site was ill-suited for space launches, as its launch corridor was limited to launches toward the West, against the Earth's rotation. As a result, the French space agency, CNES, began looking for a new base near the Equator. At the agency's Ground Facilities Division, part of the Scientific and Technical Directorate, studied 14 potential sites:

  • The Seychelles archipelago,
  • The island of Trinidad,
  • The island of Nuku-Hiva Hiva (Marquises, French Polynesia),
  • The Touamotu archipelago (island of Rairoa, French Polynesia),
  • The island of Desirade (French West-Indies),
  • The island of Marie-Galante (French West-Indies),
  • Cayenne (French Guiana),
  • Djibouti (French coast of Somaliland),
  • Darwin (Australia),
  • Trincomale (Ceylon, now Sri Lanka),
  • Fort Dauphin (Madagascar Republic),
  • Mogadishu (Republic of Somalia),
  • Port-Etienne (Islamic Republic of Mauritania)
  • Belem (Brazil)

Selection criteria for the new site were as follows:

  • The potential for placing satellites on both polar and equatorial orbits
  • Proximity of the equator
  • Site with a surface area large enough to ensure launch safety
  • A deep-water port with sufficient handling facilities
  • An airport capable of receiving long-range aircraft (with a landing strip of 3,000 meters)
  • As short a distance as possible between the launch base and Europe
  • Political stability

In February 1964, a report of the CNES Scientific and Technical Directorate ranked the choices according to the selection criteria. There were five possible sites but French Guiana was the clear favorite. On April 14, 1964, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou chose French Guiana, based on a number of advantages over the other sites:

  • It was wide open to the Atlantic Ocean, which would be advantageous for all space missions, both for launches to the east (for placing satellites on geostationary orbits) and towards the north (for placing satellites on polar orbits) with the least possible risk to the population and surrounding property.
  • Proximity of the equator (5.3° latitude North) which would take advantage of the catapult effect (energy provided by the Earth’s speed of rotation around its polar axis); this effect gives launchers an extra speed of about 460 meters per second.
  • Low population density (45,000 inhabitants in 1964 in a territory of 91,000 km2, i.e. 1/6th of France), densely concentrated on the coastal strip.
  • The possibility of installing tracking facilities on surrounding hills (radars and telemetry antennas).
  • A well-ventilated site and fairly comfortable climate in spite of its equatorial position.
  • An area sheltered from cyclones and not vulnerable to earthquakes.
  • Existing infrastructures which could be adapted fairly easily for the future space center (roads, airport, ports, telecommunications, etc.). (280)

The Guiana Space Center (CSG from French abbreviation of Centre Spatial Guyanais) was installed in Kourou in 1965. By January 1965, CNES had convinced the French government to formally offer the site to international organizations or foreign governments for their space projects. However even then, French Guiana was not the only place on Earth competing for the role of the international launching center near the Equator. During the April 1966 conference on the development of a prospective all-European launcher, total three contenders vied for the privilege to host the program:

  • Italy offered a floating platform, dubbed San Marco, anchored off the Seychelles Islands
  • Australia proposed a site near Darwin in the north of the country
  • France insisted on French Guiana

Despite advantages of Darwin in terms of "climate, communications and amenities" quoted by Australia, Europe had little choice but to accept the French proposal. After all, it was France which took the heaviest burden in the development of the all-European rocket and its position on Guiana was uncompromising. France did take chief responsibility for the development of the site and guaranteed unrestricted access to the future space center. (279)

In July 1966, the council of the ELDO (the precursor of the European Space Agency) officially chose French Guiana as the base for the Europa II rocket.

The initial construction at a cost of 25 million Francs was completed in 1968. In the meantime, the evacuation of the Hammaguir rocket test base in Algeria was completed by June 30, 1967.


The original rocket launching facilities in French Guiana were built by the French Space Agency, CNES, along a stretch of coastal land some 60 kilometers long from the town of Kourou to the town of Sinnamary and up to 20 kilometers deep into the rain forest jungle. Without climate controlled facilities, launch campaigns could be conducted only during the five-month-long dry season, while frequent floods threatened launch pads, located just five meters above sea level.

The main launch corridor to reach near-Equatorial orbit stretched some 4,000 kilometers in the Eastern direction. It was also possible to reach highly inclined polar orbit, along a corridor heading 3,000 kilometers in the Northern direction toward the Bermuda Islands. The total azimuth of possible launches from Kourou reached 120 degrees.

The original flight control network included ground stations on the Montagne de Peres, as well as on islands off the coast of French Guiana, in the city of Cayenne some 60 kilometers southeast from Kourou, and in Fortaleze, Brazil. The two main stations on the islands were equipped with 12-meter parabolic antennas, the others with smaller antennas. (222)

Rocket stages can be transported to the site by sea (booster stages) and by air (upper stages and payloads).

Launch history

A first sounding rocket, Veronique, was launched from Kourou on April 9, 1968, followed by the Diamant launch vehicle in 1970. On March 10, 1970, the Diamant-B rocket successfully delivered the DIAL satellite into orbit, the first spacecraft launched from Kourou. Until May 21, 1973, a total of five Diamant-B rockets were launched from Kourou, three of them successfully. The Diamant-B was followed by the Diamant BP4 rocket. A total of eight rockets in the Diamant series flew from Kourou with the last mission on Sept. 27, 1975.

From 1976, the European Space Agency, ESA, partially funded the construction and the maintenance of the site. Around that time, the annual budget of the spaceport reached around 300 million Francs, one third of which was funded by France and the rest by the European Space Agency.

The very first attempt to launch the Europa-2 rocket from Kourou in November 1971 ended in failure, after which the program was shut down. The ELA-1 launch complex was later refurbished for the Ariane program, which was officially under development from July 1973.

The first Ariane-1 rocket was launched from French Guiana on Dec. 24, 1979, eventually making Kourou the capital of the world's commercial space activities. The Ariane-2 and -3 rockets were introduced in 1984 and a long-lasting Ariane-4 version completed its maiden flight on June 15, 1988. (219) It remained in operation until its last launch on Feb. 15, 2003.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the spaceport in Kourou occupied 850 square kilometers of land and its personnel numbered 1,100 people. The town and surrounding area was also booming, attracting a considerable influx of immigrants. The spaceport even became a destination for the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, which carried government officials, engineers and journalists attending major launches.


As of 1993, the Guiana Space Center occupied 96,000 hectares of land and employed 1,100 people.


Launch complexes in Kourou:

Launch site
Date of operation
Launch vehicles
Sounding rocket pads
Sounding rockets
Diamant pad
Europa-2 (one launch) Ariane-1, Vega
From 1986 Ariane-2-3-4
To be completed in 2008
Soyuz-ST, Soyuz-3

Kourou timeline:

1960 January: At the meeting of the Space Research Committee of the International Council of Scientific organizations, COSPAR, European scientists discuss the idea of the creation an international space research organization.

1960 Dec. 1: Intergovernmental conference at Meyrin, Switzerland, setting up a European Preparatory Commission for Space Research (COPERS)

1962 March 18: The accords d'Evian (Evian agreement) are signed. Hammiguir to be dismantled by 1967.

1962 March 29: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, UK and Australia sign an agreement on the development of a prospective launch vehicle.

1962 June 14: 10 European countries sign an agreement to create the European Space Research Organization, ESRO.

1964 February: CNES Scientific and Technical Directorate rank the choices according to the selection criteria and favoring French Guiana.

1964 Feb. 29: The agreement on the creation of European Launcher Development Organization, ELDO, takes effect.

1964 March 20: The agreement on the creation of European Space Research Organization, ESRO, takes effect.

1964 April 14: Prime Minister Georges Pompidou chooses French Guiana as the location of a future launch site.

1965 January: The French government to formally opens the site to international organizations or foreign governments.

1966 July 8: The ELDO council decides to establish its operations in Kourou.

1967 June 30: The deactivation of the Hammaguir rocket test base in Algeria is completed.

1968 April 9: A first sounding rocket -- Veronique -- flies from Kourou.

1970 March 10: The Diamant-B rocket successfully delivers the DIAL satellite into orbit, the first spacecraft launched from Kourou.

1971 Nov. 5: An attempt to launch the Europa-2 rocket from Kourou ends in failure after 150 seconds in flight.

1973 April 27: Leaders of the Europa-2 program agree to cancel the project immediately, despite the return-to-flight vehicle being on its way to French Guiana.

1973 July 12 and 31: The European Space Conference (ESC) meeting in Brussels decides the start of three new programs: Spacelab, Ariane and Marots and the creation of the European Space Agency (ESA)

1974: ELDO is disbanded

1975 April 15: The European Space Agency, ESA is formed.

1979 Dec. 24: The first Ariane-1 rocket is launched from Kourou.

1980 March 26: The Arianespace company is formed to conduct operational missions of the Ariane rocket.

1980 July 3: The development of the Ariane-3 rocket is approved.

1980 end of the year: Arianespace has won launch orders worth 1,400 million francs.

1984 Aug. 4: The first Ariane-3 rocket flies.

1985 January 30-31: The ESA Council at ministerial level in Rome approves the start of preparatory work on the Ariane 5 launch vehicle.

1985 July 2: Giotto becomes the first deep-space mission to fly from Kourou.

1986 March 28: First launch from the ELA-2 launch pad.

1987 Nov. 9-10: ESA officially approves the development of the Ariane-5, Columbus and Hermes programs.

1988 June 15: The Ariane-4 makes its maiden flight from Kourou.

1989 February: Guiana Space Center is hit with a strike of 210 personnel of the Thomson company, who demand higher salaries and social benefits. The strike delays the upcoming 29th mission of the Ariane rocket to March.

1989 July 12: Last launch of the Ariane rocket from ELA-1.

1991 June 20: The main umbilical tower of the ELA-1 complex is lowered to the ground during the dismantlement of the facility.

1993 June: The first launch of the Ariane-5 rocket is expected in October 1995.

1996 June 4: The first attempt to launch the Ariane-5 rocket ends in a failure after 37-39 seconds in flight and the loss of four Cluster science satellites.

1998 Oct. 21: Ariane-5 launches the first Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator, ARD, from Kourou. The ARD then splashes down.

2000 Dec. 15: Development of a light-weight Vega booster is approved.

2001 July: Arianespace inaugurates the S5 building complex for the pre-flight processing of payloads.

2003 Feb. 15: The Ariane-4 flies its last mission.

2003 Sept. 27: The Ariane-5 launches SMART-1, ESA's first unmanned lunar mission.

2004 Feb. 4: ESA approves the construction of a launch pad for the Soyuz rocket in French Guiana.

2004 March 2: The Ariane-5 rocket launches the Rosetta mission aiming to land on the surface of a comet.

2007 Feb. 26: ESA leads ceremonial inauguration of the construction of the launch pad for the Soyuz rocket in French Guiana.

2008 March 9: The ATV-1 Jules Verne cargo ship becomes the first vehicle to fly to the International Space Station from Kourou.

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 25, 2008

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: May 23, 2008

All rights reserved


Kourou road sign

A two-kilometer road marker on the outskirts of the Guiana Space Center, CSG, probably dating back to the foundation of the site in the mid-1960s. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

Sounding rocket site

Road leading to the sounding rocket site, the first launch facility in French Guiana. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

Diamant pad scale model

Scaled model of the launch complex for the Diamant rocket in Kourou, French Guiana. Click to enlarge: 400 by 300 pixels / 32K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak


A ground control station supporting operations in Kourou. Credit: CNES