How a Jungle Prison Became a Famous Spaceport

An anthropologist explains how the South American launch site for the James Webb Space Telescope evolved

Spaceport in French Guiana
The European spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana, is an important launch site for rockets. Adèle Roncey

This article was originally published on Supercluster, a website dedicated to telling humanity's greatest outer space stories.

Imagine waking up on a tropical island.

You’re surrounded by palm trees, you hear singing birds and waves crashing into the coastal rocks. The island is small and with no permanent inhabitants; it is just you, some fellow tourists, a few hospitality staff and the monkeys with their loud morning cries. If you find yourself on the Salvation Islands, off the coast of the city of Kourou, French Guiana, then you are a stone’s throw away from an active spaceport. And a rocket launch might be imminent.

I began to explore these islands a few weeks after first arriving in South America a few months ago. I made my way to Kourou to gather research on the social and cultural impacts of the space industry on local communities. My work is part of the ARIES project, a team of ethnographers who are investigating the impact of outer space on people around the globe and searching for missing narratives among communities woven into the global space industry.

For my research, I am particularly interested in how this European spaceport found its way to South American soil, and what it means for the surrounding communities. Fellow ARIES project member Peter Timko also published some of his research on Supercluster, taking a look at the culture around Norton Space Props in Hollywood and its impact on the space industry.

In my first weeks here, I've spent most of my time learning French, wandering around and working in the archives of the Guiana Space Center. If you followed the anxiety-driven but successful Christmas morning launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2021, then you are somewhat familiar with the mysterious spaceport in French Guiana. The massive space observatory was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) on the Ariane 5 rocket.

Kourou is hard to get a grasp on. On the one hand, it ticks all the boxes of its self-proclaimed status as “ville spatiale,” or "space city." You are greeted by a big mock-up rocket at the entrance of the city; there are billboards by space agencies, Lockheed Martin and Airbus sprinkled around town, and graffiti of monkeys in spacesuits adorns the sides of buildings.

On the other hand, space seems far removed from most people’s daily lives. Even though advanced rockets are launched a few miles from the town, power cuts and bad internet connections are common occurrences for the majority of the people here. Kourou is relatively small, with an official population of around 25,000 and there are significant disparities in living standards between different neighborhoods. The space community down at Cape Canaveral might find some of this familiar.

At the beachfront, you find the villas of the higher-ups of the space industry. These are the biggest and most prominent homes you can find in town. Behind, there are the houses for engineers and scientists provided by their employers; still nice, just at a different scale. Most of the rest of the town is visibly less well-off, with smaller and lower-quality housing. Other neighborhoods include the “Village Amerindian” and “Village Saramaca,” two sections specifically created to house the people displaced when the Space Center claimed the land they were living on in the 1960s.

Finding a space center

Spaceport in French Guiana
After drafting a shortlist of 14 sites, the French space agency picked Kourou. Adèle Roncey

When the French space agency arrived in Kourou in 1968, it essentially set up all the infrastructure that is the foundation of the town that exists today, including roads, schools and social venues like the movie theater. Before then, Kourou was the home to about 600 agriculturalists practicing "abattis," a nomadic agricultural method of slash and burn. There would be no place for that after the Space Center was established—the continental French way of life was now imposed on its inhabitants.

To understand why the French decided to bring their spaceport to French Guiana, we have to make a detour to a different, former French colony: Algeria. Prior to and since the establishment of the French space agency, known by the French acronym CNES, in 1961, France had a launch base in Hammaguir, Algeria. But when Algeria successfully fought through a bloody campaign for independence, it negotiated the termination of the rocket site as part of the Évian Accords, leaving France in a pickle. With the ongoing Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the French were desperate not to fall too far behind and thus quickly started their search for a replacement site.

After drafting a shortlist of 14 sites, CNES ranked potential replacements on the basis of several criteria, including logistics, geography, infrastructure and geopolitical status. With a latitude of 5 degrees, favorable weather conditions and the possibility to launch both north and eastward, Kourou ticked all the boxes for an operational spaceport. Additionally, the territory officially integrated as an overseas department into the French state in 1946, which avoided the political complications of launching in a different nation, and provided the steady political climate deemed necessary for sustainable success. It emerged as the clear winner.

But the location has a sordid role in French history. Less than two decades prior, French Guiana was a cruel penal colony and a forced settlement for many French convicts. This served a dual purpose: not only did it solve the problem of overcrowded prisons in metropolitan France, but it also created the workforce deemed necessary to develop the infrastructure of French Guiana.

The working conditions were incredibly harsh, as the prisoners were not accustomed to the Amazonian heat and humidity, and its accompanying tropical diseases caused many deaths. But at the great cost of the lives and suffering of these prisoners, roads were constructed, infrastructure was built, and a town took shape.

When it came to prison camps in French Guiana, the Salvation Islands were particularly notorious. They were known for their social isolation, continuous mental torment and the knowledge that dangerous waters would make escape nearly impossible.

These islands housed one of the penal colony's most famous convicts: political prisoner Alfred Dreyfus. And the memoir of another of its inhabitants, Henri Charrière, titled Papillon, would later inspire adaptations depicting the harsh realities of a French prisoner in the 20th century. Charrière, who was a criminal since childhood, was wrongly convicted of murder in 1931 and sentenced to life in French Guiana's penal colony.

According to the autobiography, Charrière spent the next 14 years transferring between the different prisons around the colony while enduring brutal violence and inhumane conditions. He attempted to escape many times, but the most daring came in 1941 when Charrière and a fellow inmate built a makeshift raft and finally got away from the infamously fortified Devil's Island, part of the Salvation Islands, and sailed to freedom through shark-infested waters. His book, reaching mainstream popularity, would be adapted into a feature film in 1973 that shares the same title as the book and stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.

Devil's Island finally closed in 1953, but a majority of the 80,000 prisoners incarcerated there over the course of a century never made it back to France. Many died from disease and the conditions of the penal colony.

If I had found myself here in 1923, rather than in 2023, the tropical dream would have been a surrealistic nightmare. Now just the remnants of the prisons remain. Now you can wander around the island, take a dip in the “prisoners' swimming pool” and sleep in the former guardian residency. You might spot many of the animals that populate the area. According to the ESA, French Guiana’s geography and proximity to the equator make it both an ideal place for a spaceport and a lush wildlife habitat: "Marine turtles nest close to the spaceport and the scarlet ibis has made the grounds of the spaceport its home."

Much of the area is untouched forest, accessible only by boat. There are rapids, waterfalls, forest trails, creeks and marshlands as well as remote villages. "It is a nature lover’s paradise; more than 6,000 plant species, 700 bird species and 160 species of mammals have been identified to date," ESA says.

Amid rocket launches, the lush Amazonian wildlife thrives, highlighting the delicate balance between human advancements and nature preservation. Despite Kourou's dark history, its spaceport embodies a potent blend of innovation and ecological coexistence. Surrounding communities are finding pride and solidarity with the mission of space exploration and the many advancements in aerospace happening in their own backyard.

Future generations growing up in and around Kourou may pursue careers at the spaceport and, one day, even work in space.

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