3, 2, 1… décollage! Whether you are passionate about the space race or not, attend a rocket launch is a once-in-a-lifetime experience everyone should cross off their bucket list. The sudden light, the rocket crossing the sky, the noise and vibrations. In addition, the feeling of having witnessed something extraordinary. Because even though we launch a rocket almost every day nowadays, this is still something extraordinary that only a hundred years ago people considered impossible.
Since 2013, I have been living in French Guiana and I have seen more than 70 launches, I also worked on about 20 of them. This is my complete guide, with some insider tips, on how to attend a rocket launch and which are the best observation sites in French Guiana.
By the way, did you know that at the Guiana Space Centre you can attend a rocket launch for free?
That’s cool, right? Then note that every activity you can do at the Space Centre is completely free (except for the Space Museum), including the Launchpad’s visits and the Space Centre’s Natural Reserve visit (Visite des Savane).
When is the next launch?
The rocket launch schedule is very complicated and subject to change many times since the first announcement. There may be delays during the satellite preparation, during the rocket campaign, or even on the launch day. If you are planning a trip to French Guiana and you would like to attend a rocket launch, my advice is to gather as much information as you can, especially from fan-based blogs and forums.
Once you have an idea of the upcoming launches, consider booking your tickets with a minimum margin of 2 weeks. That should work if you book your trip 2-3 months earlier. If you have any questions, feel free to DM me on Instagram or comment here, I’ll be glad to help you.
Things to know before to attend a rocket launch
When launching a rocket there are many things at stake. Security, for the people, but also the security of the satellite and installations. Equally important is the satellite mission, the rocket is a vector bringing its precious cargo to a very specific point. Even the smallest of anomalies, may freeze the final countdown and turn the parameters from green to red, meaning the chronology is on standby. For these reasons keep the following tips in mind:
- The launch may have a “window”. That means that if they stop the final countdown, they still can launch anytime within the launch window. The launches that don’t have the window, automatically switch to the next possible launch date when the countdown stops.
- The launch can be delayed because of anomalies of any type (meteorology, safety, ground segment, satellite). That may be frustrating, but don’t forget that all we want is to see the mission succeed.
Stay informed of the mission updates by following the official channels. CNES Centre Spatial Guyanais has a Twitch channel that streams the live and has interesting interviews with the base operatives (unfortunately it’s only in French). Otherwise, Arianespace YouTube channel hosts the traditional launch’s streaming (both English and French). Note that the live video can be delayed 30 seconds or longer.
And please don’t forget to put away your camera/phone and just enjoy the launch! There will be tons of high-quality photos and videos after the launch. But no device will capture the magical moment as well as your own eyes and ears, believe me! 😉
Instead, you can take an Insta-worth picture, when visiting the Space Museum or going to the Base visit. Ariane 5 mock-up is quite a star on socials!
Attend a rocket launch from Kourou’s different sites
Observation sites with access control
Attending a launch within the CSG area is the best way to enjoy this experience. However, the places are limited and sometimes the sites may be closed because of the meteorology. Make sure to check the upcoming launches on the CNES CSG website and reserve your spot 2-3 weeks before the launch day.
On the launch day, you will need your passport or identity card and your invitation (printed or on your mobile device) to access the site. Before entering the reception area, there is a security checkpoint that checks your credentials. Also, don’t forget to check your bags for sharp objects. My mom once almost got rejected because she forgot her little Swiss knife! Also plan to arrive with a safe margin, 15-20 minutes before the time on your invitation is perfect.
One of the benefits of being inside the base? The launch brochure you will receive. Inside there are some details about the launch and the satellite mission, and most important the launch sticker! This is an absolute favorite of mine. During the years, I started a collection that features almost all of the stickers, since the beginning of the Ariane program. You can check the collection on my website.
Jupiter Control Centre
If you are dreaming of seeing a launch as you were part of it, this is your go-to place. Jupiter Control Centre is a large hall that looks like a theatre. The stage? A series of stations where you can see the operation’s director, his assistants, and the satellite clients. In front of them, big wall screens will be showing live the rocket on the launchpad, the final countdown, and the launch parameters.
Spots at Jupiter’s Control Centre are very limited. Check regularly if the reservations are open for the dates of your stay on the CNES CSG website. Jupiter Control Centre is a VIP site, and you will be required to dress properly (no shorts or flip-flops).
Best for: The feeling of being a part of the launch team.
What’s interesting about the Venus Tower is its location: inside the Technical Centre. Hence during the bus transport, you will spot some of the administration and technical buildings.
Just like Jupiter, you can reserve your spot on the Guiana Space Centre website.
Best for: The view of the Technical Centre.
I couldn’t do this list without mentioning Agami site. But unfortunately, for safety reasons this site is closed very often!
Agami is a carbet in the middle of the Amazonian Forest, inside the Guiana Space Centre. It’s also the observation site closest to the launchpad, only 6 kilometers from Ariane 5 rocket. During Vega launches the site is closed.
Best for: the extra visit to the Space Centre’s protected forest.
Observation site with free access
Besides the sites you can access only with an invitation, you have some free access options. The main advantage: you can enter and leave when you want.
Carapa Hill is an open access site, but with a limited capacity (up to 500 entries, that’s often more than enough for the usual number of entries). Moreover, you’ll have to pass security controls. Once you’re in, there is a 5 minutes hike to the top of Carapa. Even if the lush vegetation hides part of the view, you can see very well the Administration Area of the Space Centre and the big Ariane 5 mock-up. When they start the first stage, the view is the best among all observation sites. In fact, Carapa is the highest observation point in Kourou.
Best for: the unmatched view during the take-off.
Do you want to enjoy a bucket list experience while sipping a cocktail on the beach? Pim-Poum might be the perfect solution for you! The keyword is RELAX. You can stop and grab a drink at one of the food tracks on the beach. Then head over the rocks that surround the small bay. They get busy pretty early, the best time to get there is 20-30 minutes before the launch.
Best for: chilling with friends and enjoying the rocket’s reflection on the ocean
If you are motivated for a hike this is a very nice observation point. Although a bit far, you can still perfectly see the rocket reaching the sky. When going don’t forget to consider nightfall. Most of the time the H0 is set around sunset, between 6 and 7 PM. Meaning that you should walk 40-50 minutes to the parking, in a completely dark forest. Yeah, I know, many horror movies start like that, and that’s for a reason. Simply it’s not safe to wander in the forest in the dark unless you are an expert.
When considering this option for a late afternoon launch, think instead of camping in the carbet on top of the hill.
Best for: the view of the rocket over the lush Amazonian rainforest
In conclusion, why you should do it!
Attending a launch is an incredible experience, and I’m sure you’ll love it. The proof even after my 70 and more launches, I’m still amazed by the sight and noise of the rocket lifting in the sky. Still not convinced? Here are many more reasons to visit French Guiana.
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