Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Europe's booming spaceport and its Amazon neighbours

Kourou rocket launch site in French Guiana

The European rocket launch site in French Guiana may have become the world's most important commercial satellite spaceport, but Sue Nelson finds that its boom is alienating the locals.

No-one forgets their first rocket launch. Mine was an Ariane 4 in the Amazonian Basin.

The rocket rose breathtakingly and unexpectedly slowly - and in complete silence. Sound is a tortoise compared to the speed of light and it takes time before a deep rumble accompanies the visuals.

On my return to the Guiana Space Centre, the first immediate difference I notice is Cayenne's Rochambeau airport.

In 1999 the terminal had recently opened and resembled an empty warehouse. Today you are greeted by the sight of rental car offices, a cafe with wireless internet and an area devoted to French Guiana's most important attraction: Kourou's spaceport.

On the drive to Kourou, roads are lined with coconut palms and banana trees - very South American.

But French Guiana is a French overseas territory and Nicholas Sarkozy is its head of state. When my French hire car requires petrol, I'll pay in euros.

Map of French Guiana

And boy, do I need those euros. Because, unlike other parts of South America I've visited, French Guiana is expensive.

Eye-wateringly so.

Supermarkets may sell baguettes, pate, an extensive selection of wine and a French rolled wafer called cigarette, but everything is at a premium because it is imported from France.

My hotel room costs 170 euros a night - nearly $250 - and its mediocre restaurant has London, or should that be Paris, prices.

Ten years ago, hotels were the main places to eat. Today, a handful of independent restaurants cater for the growing number of visitors from the space industry.

Kourou's spaceport now launches six out of 10 commercial satellites, and evidence of this is everywhere.

Armed robbers

Walls in restaurants like the Kong Long are decorated with satellite stickers from past launches - such as Superbird 7 and Inmarsat 3.

I pop into the town's Deli France for a coffee and it, too, has stickers for Rosetta, Protostar and a Union Jack with the word "propulsion" on it.

They are reminders of the international nature of space science.

The Deli France's managers are Chinese - one of the territory's many ethnic groups. Unfortunately, Chinese-run businesses are often targeted by armed robbers.

The gunmen, I hear later from a former policeman, have links with the Columbian drugs trade.

This rise in crime is a huge concern for locals, and after having a sawn off shotgun pointed at his face, the policeman finally decided to leave French Guiana.

The hotel advises me not to go anywhere alone, but I brave the town centre on foot and also drive around, keen to see what has changed.

Space theme

Kourou appears to have doubled in size with new pastel-coloured, low-rise buildings, either on every street, or in the process of construction.

"Every time I come here," said one scientist, "something else has been built."

Roads are lined with billboards for companies and services, usually with a space theme: the French Space Agency, CNES; the satellite manufacturers EADS Astrium; a Planet Surf shop and one ad simply promoting the region's unique selling point: 100% Espace 100% Guiana.

A child in the Cali slum, Cayenne
The poor of Guiana live in shacks like the Cali slum in Cayenne

Yet this high-tech industry is at odds with the town itself.

Kourou may be one of French Guiana's fastest growing towns, but it is also one of its poorest.

Unemployment is high and its beaches are stunning but empty. Silt from the Amazon turns the water brown, making tourism difficult.

There also appears to be little interaction between the expats and French Guianians, an observation that makes me feel more and more uncomfortable.

Russian rockets

I ask a French engineer how he feels. "Proud," he says. "It's like Britain's relationship with India."

One thing that hasn't changed is the weather - an average temperature of 28C and 90% humidity.

Out of the protective comfort of air conditioning, it is like being smothered by a hot, wet flannel.

Driving to and from the spaceport's press centre each day, just outside Kourou, I pass members of the French Foreign Legion protecting the site.

European rocket Ariane 5 is launched from Kourou in December 2009
Kourou has become the world's leading commercial satellite spaceport

The Space Museum next door had nothing in it on my last visit. This time, I spend an enjoyable hour swotting up on cryogenic main stage engines. Well, I am a science writer.

The final launch of 2009 was also the final launch of the generic Ariane 5 rocket. From now on only the next generation Ariane 5s, the ECAs, will carry satellites into orbit. As will, for the first time in the spaceport's history, Russian Soyuz rockets.

The first Soyuz launch is scheduled for later this year and a community of Russians has moved into French Guiana in preparation.

A small part of South America, ruled by the French, is about to undergo yet another change.

One can't help feeling that the locals don't get much say in the matter.

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