Science: Eurpe's space race takes off

Nasa's manned missions steal the column inches but European rockets take off almost weekly. Michael Hanlon visits the launch site in Guyana and, right, charts Britain's involvement
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The Independent Culture
HOW THE French love their hi-tech. And despite appearances, and temperatures, to the contrary, we are very much in France. A huge video screen plonked in front of the terrace bar, high on a vantage point, shows close-up views of the slender white rocket four miles away across the jungle clearing. Jean-Michel Jarre plays softly through the loudspeakers. Bow-tied barmen serve iced Lowenbrau beers, Chablis and rum cocktails. The white suits and Panama hats of the invited VIPs mix with the scruffier attire of journalists and technicians. The air is heady with tension and mosquito repellent. Three minutes to go. Two minutes to go. Much nervousness, despite the relaxing combination of 38-degree heat, 95 per cent humidity and too much free wine. Finally, we were into the countdown proper, the countdown that in fact began 19 hours ago, but only now came to life - cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un ... - and nothing. We were at launch-zero, and the scene hadn't changed. People look around ... this is Ariane, after all ...

But then, after about four seconds, (right on cue, as it happens, if I had bothered to read my press release) the tropical night lights up. The dark hills in the distance resolve themselves into a mighty rainforest of mahogany and teak, and slowly, atop a ball of fire, the perfectly routine Ariane 4 flight 106, with its valuable payload - several million pounds worth of communications satellite - climbs slowly into the air from the ELA2 launch pad, the noise of its solid-fuel booster motors vibrating the ground for miles around. Picking up speed, the 200ft spacecraft punches a hole through a huge cumulonimbus storm cloud, lighting it up from within like a mini atomic fireball. Gaining speed - the video screen tells us that the pillar of fire arcing north over Devil's Island, once home to Papillon and Dreyfuss, nine miles off shore and evacuated for the launch day, is now travelling at five times the speed of sound - the noise becomes a metallic, pulsating crackle, distorted by distance and the thinning air surrounding the accelerating rocket, now well into the stratosphere. All systems normal, huge sighs of relief all round, pounds 120m pounds had, quite literally, gone up in smoke, and everyone is very happy. Now it is time to party.

French Guyana is an odd place to find a space centre. This small enclave of what is, technically, metropolitan France on the north-east coast of South America, is home to some of the most perfectly preserved equatorial rainforest on the planet. The loggers, strip miners, subsistence farmers and drugs barons that are eating away the forest to the south in Brazil and to the north and west in Colombia and Venezuela are kept at bay by the generosity of the French taxpayer. Guyana's mighty rivers are clean and unpolluted, and there are believed to be undiscovered Amerindian tribes in the interior - undiscovered, but still, rather surreally, citizens of the European Union. Yet, on the coast, near the little town of Kourou - known locally as White Town because of the predominant colour of its inhabitants - a huge area, 850 square kilometres - the size of Greater Paris - of malarial swamp and jungle has been cleared away and since the late 1970s has been home to Europe's Grand Central space station. On launch day, the tension rises in this sleepy backwater. The space centre is invaded by troops from the Foreign Legion base nearby - security is more of an issue since the anti-French disturbances last year in Cayenne, the capital.

Guyana is an ideal spot for launching, better than Cape Canaveral 1,500 miles to the north in Florida. Being virtually on the equator, a rocket launched from here already has a 1,000mph boost westwards courtesy of the Earth's rotation. To the north and east is the Atlantic ocean, population density is low. Where once were trees is now a huge expanse of grassy savannah, bordered by the palm-fringed ocean to the east and the jungle to the west. Rising from the grassland are huge white buildings - skyscrapers without windows - which are the assembly buildings for the Ariane fleet.

There are networks of railway tracks on which the completed rockets - weighing some 3,800 tonnes with their massive steel launch platforms, the largest wheeled objects in existence, are trundled around the centre, pulled at walking pace by supercharged 18-wheel dumptrucks. Everywhere bits of rocket lie in climatically-controlled storage crates shipped or airfreighted from Europe. In the assembly buildings, the size of St Paul's and air-conditioned to the point of discomfort, pony-tailed rocket scientists, tanned and fit, rush around with clipboards and laptops. Close up, the construction gantry for the latest addition to the ESA's fleet, an Ariane 5, big enough to lift a manned craft into space, is awesome. Finely-milled titanium widgets are nudged gently into place by smooth polished hydraulic lifters.

Out at the launch pad, now off-limits, steaming hoses pump supercooled liquid hydrogen and oxygen into fuel tanks. Next to the spindly launch gantry, a water tower ready to flood the site in a mini tidal wave as the main engines ignite, the water both cooling and deadening potentially harmful vibrations. A massive concrete bunker houses the launch control room, only 950 metres from the launch site, its two-metre walls able to withstand the force of a direct hit by 300 tonnes of exploding Ariane, should something go terribly wrong. And Arianes are famous for going wrong. Or were.

The European launch vehicle now boasts a success rate of more than 95 per cent - of 106 launches so far, seven have ended in failure. The most recent embarrassment was the explosion of the first Ariane 5 in October 1996 , but this rocket now has "a greater than 98 per cent reliability - calculated theoretically at least," according to Claude Sanchez, PR director of Arianespace, the company which launches commercial satellites. "That means that it is man-rated. If you are asking whether there will be a manned launch aboard the Ariane 5, I would have to say 'why not?'".

Manned flights from Guyana may not happen for some years yet. The Italians are keen, but the French and British are lukewarm about the idea, preferring to concentrate on unmanned scientific and commercial developments such as Earth observation. When the International Space Station becomes operational next year, this attitude may change. Although Esa's Hermes space plane - a rival to the Shuttle - was cancelled four years ago, there are still plans for a simpler manned capsule which could ferry astronauts into low earth orbit. It may have taken 20 years of catching up, but the Europeans are now major players in space. !