Young ESA group at Gaia launch site in Kourou

Ever flew over Kourou? Ever climbed a palm tree? Ever slept in a hammock in the jungle? Ever been to paradise with the devil around the corner?

We, some of the Young ESA members, were the lucky ones who actually experienced it all in French Guiana two weeks ago. It was possible thanks to the perfect organization of Juan de Dalmau who guided us for a week through the culture, nature and spaceport – and yes, it was great fun!


Feeling in paradise while feet-shaking synchronized swimming

We had the chance to learn about the culture in French Guiana as well as taste the rainforest life! During the first days we visited Cayenne and its traditional market, spent some time in Cacao (Hmong refugees’ town) and Guiana zoo with all the local wildlife. On our trip towards Devil’s Islands (Îles du Salut) by boat and the tour around “Île Royale” and the remnants of the penal colony, we experienced that in the past, paradise was really close to hell for some of the prisoners.

Some of us even experienced zero-G and a nice sightseeing flight in a small 2-seater single engine plane – and took over as captain. Thanks to the Aero Club Kourou crew for that unforgettable airsickness!

hands up

Hands up who want to be invited for the next launch (or lunch at least)!

Definitely the highlight of the trip was visiting the French Guiana spaceport and having the great opportunity to meet the spaceport employees! We had a guided tour of the whole area, of Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega launch complexes and the spacecraft processing facilities and had a briefing in the Jupiter mission control room.

kissing Gaia

“Dear Gaia, please send us tons of nice pics of your forthcoming trip”. Kisses, Jutta.


We also had interesting briefings from Ared Schnorhk on the Gaia mission and the launch campaign, and from Eduardo Urgoiti (SENER) on the Gaia sunshield development. Seeing the spacecraft in the clean room at S1B through a large window – the real one that will be launched in a couple of week was simply amazing!


Team CSG (Computer Support Group at ESA-ESAC) supporting Gaia activities, here with a human-simulation of the launch.

Furthermore, we got the opportunity to have a tour to the Soyuz integration hall, and have a close look at the Soyuz being prepared for its next launch. It’s an amazing piece of technology!

We took the chance to taste the local food, had fun enjoying the great company of locals and CSGs during the meals, bowling, drinking “Planteur” and learning to dance Salsa! The group spirit was excellent at all times. While our first rainforest walking experience in the Cayenne area was already very impressive, the guided tour of the primary rainforest and the hands-on rainforest activities exceeded all our expectations: basically, we learned how to survive in the jungle. We learned about all the pharmaceutical plants, how to get water out of a root, what to eat and what better not to eat in the forest, fishing, gold seeking, climbing a palm tree, how to make a backpack out of leaves, what to do in case a snake bites you or viewing jaguars.

milky way

Night sky picture from amateur astronomer Dauwe Goorhuis, from the Netherlands’ Astruim space outreach association. It links nicely to Gaia…

Last but not least, we did great boat tours, canoeing, swimming in the rivers, observed our Milky Way and other galaxies in the unpolluted night sky and slept in hammocks in the middle of the jungle – only protected from falling coconuts by a small roof, and with snakes and monkeys all around.

A big thank you in the name of the whole “Young ESA” group to all colleagues from CSG for your great hospitality, your time and enthusiasm during our visit last week to CSG. We enjoyed it a lot! And especially many thanks again to Juan for everything – he made it all possible! Thanks for the memories of these seven days in paradise!

This entry was written by Jutta Huebner and Alejandro Lorca. Thank you for sharing your story!