Summer has not put the brakes on for activities here at Europe’s Spaceport.

The investigation commission surrounding the Vega launch failure for VV15 was appointed immediately after the incident on July 11. This caused a few days of delay for the next launch since the teams could not immediately reconfigure the ground systems for the following launch. The date for the next Ariane 5 launch therefore slipped to August 6.

Since many ask me what it means to be the head of the ESA office here, in order to give you an idea, here comes a recap of the last few weeks:

July 10 (Wednesday)

Preparations for the Ariane 5 launch, VA249, were already well underway. Intelsat-39 (the upper satellite) had concluded its preparation. It was placed into the transport container that brings it to the launcher in another building.

July 11 (Thursday)

The next day, the other VA249 payload — the EDRS-C satellite — is integrated on top of the dual launch structure called SYLDA.

July 12 (Friday)

The fairing for VA249 is installed over Intelsat-39. This is the structure that protects the satellite during launch.

July 14 (Sunday)

This is a big day in France — the French national holiday, known as Bastille Day. For Kourou, there is no exception. A parade of various military forces comes through the town at 18:00, and then at 21:00, we are invited to the traditional festive event at the Foreign Legion Residence.

July 15 (Monday)

VA249 preparations continue. This is the day we do tests with the downrange stations, i.e. in Kourou; Natal in Brazil; Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean; Libreville in Gabon; and Malindi in Kenya. They will receive the VA249’s telemetry as it passes overhead, then send it back to Kourou for processing and distribution. EDRS-C, the lower satellite, is installed on its launch support structure and then onto the transport pallet.


July 18 (Thursday)

EDRS-C goes into the transport container and then to the building where the launch vehicle is.


July 23 (Tuesday)

A regular meeting with the Gendarmerie, the French national police force. We get an update of the security situation here in Kourou (which is positive) and it is the last chance to say goodbye to the Commandant who will leave on August 1. In the evening, I am invited to a ceremony to mark the handover of the Foreign Legion command. Lt Colonel Antoine Laparra is leaving by plane the next day, and his replacement has arrived. I arrive early, park the car, and join the white military uniforms and a smattering of civilians heading for the parade ground inside the compound. There I meet a few of my colleagues and we are shown our seats. It has been raining heavily for several days and the ground is soft. We take our seats. The parade ground is in darkness (and when it is dark here, it is DARK) but you can sense movement. Then a voice comes over the loudspeaker and the ceremony begins. 

It is a moving ceremony, making full use of lights, music, and military grandeur. After the handover there is a parade and then we move over to the pool area for speeches and drinks. 

July 24 (Wednesday)

In the afternoon, we have a big event on the new launch pad that is emerging for Ariane 6. The Ariane 6 launch pad has a mobile gantry, just like Vega and Soyuz and Ariane 4 (the predecessor of Ariane 5). It is a huge metal structure that has steadily grown out of the piles of steel brought from Europe and today they are going to move it (officially) for the first time. Success! Afterwards, we enjoy some celebration… which is well deserved, because this is a BIG moment for us.

July 30 (Tuesday)

The Intelsat satellite under the fairing is hoisted on top of the launcher where EDRS-C is already installed.


August 5 (Monday)

One day to go, which means it’s time for the transfer to the launch zone in the morning and the weather briefing at 18:00. I head over to the VIP welcome ceremony. Tomorrow, the VIP briefing is at 08:00 and the lift-off is planned for 16:30 local time, i.e. 21:30 Paris time.

All ready for tomorrow!

August 6 (Tuesday)

The day starts with the VIP briefing. There are 60 guests and three clients: Intelsat, Airbus-ESA, and Avanti. The EDRS-C platform had some spare capacity (space, mass, power, etc) and could therefore co-host another payload. Avanti was able to integrate their payload, called Hylas-3, onto the EDRS-C satellite platform.

The presentations are short but informative, and after an hour, the guests are on their way to do the tour of the Spaceport before lunch. I go into the control room and say hello to those present. It is the start of the countdown and people are settling in. 

The T-7 hours weather briefing gives an update on the tropical front passing to the North of us. It caused showers and thunder in the early morning hours and this will continue during the day. There is confidence it will stay over the ocean, but we might get drenched now and then throughout the day.

After watching over some final tests, I just make it to the canteen before they close and there I meet up with a ESA colleague who will soon join us out here for a two year spell. On the way back to the control room, I pick up a copy of my pre-launch speech.

Guests are entering Jupiter 2. The sun is shining and there is a festive atmosphere. In the control room, all is nominal.

The final 20 minutes are uneventful. The room goes very quiet; everyone is concentrating.

At minus 2 minutes, the doors to the terrace open and the VIPs stream outside to watch the launch live.

The range operations director reads out the final 10 seconds and we watch the main engine ignite; we wait for the checks (done by the computer) to pass and the ignition of the two solid boosters. Only then can Ariane 5 take off. Punctually at plus 7 seconds, the launch vehicle rises into the blue sky.

Azimuth is 88 deg and we can hear the sound as it passes. We also have the video images on the screen, the very same that are streamed worldwide. It is impressive.

The flight is nominal, and 33-34 minutes later, both satellites have been released. Everybody applauds. It is a relief for the teams who have worked many years on preparing their satellites. Now they are in the hands of the ground control teams. After another half hour, the launch vehicle stages have been passivated and this signals the end of the mission. Behind us, the VIPs are listening to the speeches and we gather for our customary group photo.

Next launch is late autumn, but there are plenty of other activities going on between now and then.

Enjoy the summer!

Charlotte Beskow

Head of the ESA Space Transportation Office in Kourou