Multiple demonstrations in French Guiana included this one, led by robed lawyers, near the Guiana Space Center spaceport. Credit: La Voix du Nord
PARIS — The continued shutdown of Europe’s spaceport threatens to scuttle launch-service provider Arianespace’s plans for 2017 — a year when it hoped to distinguish itself from its competitors.
It is also a problem for those commercial customers whose planned launch dates in March and April are now scrapped, including Eutelsat and its 172B satellite customers, Panasonic Avionics; ViaSat Inc.’s business-crucial ViaSat-2; and SES’s SES-15.
As of April 17, it was unclear whether the protest movement’s decision to allow shopping over the long Easter weekend by opening roadblocks that have choked economic activity in French Guiana signaled an end to the protests, or whether circulation would be paralyzed again on April 18.
Roadblocks lifted for Easter — except for spaceport
In an indication of how the Guiana Space Center has come to symbolize the French state, the protesters maintained a roadblock of the spaceport access road while opening the others to traffic for the weekend.
The grounding of Europe’s launch vehicles compounds an already stressed global commercial launch sector. Launches of Russia’s Proton rocket have been suspended since June for technical defects, and a late-May return to flight has not been confirmed.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9, recovering from a September failure, is juggling a crowded manifest. Whether it can ramp operations to its long-promised twice-per-month cadence is uncertain. China’s Long March rocket family, in robust health, remains a minor player on the market because of a U.S. ban on launching U.S.-built satellite parts from China.
The Guiana Space Center, on the northeast coast of South America, has seen brief labor-related shutdowns before. Local law enforcement typically does not intervene, out of concern for creating martyrs and enflaming situations that end quietly after negotiations. This has worked in the past.
A broad-based protest, but is support eroding?
But not this time. A work stoppage March 20 at the spaceport, which prevented the Ariane 5 rocket from being rolled out to its launch pad for a planned March 21 launch, was followed by a broad movement in French Guiana protesting high crime rates, illegal immigration and the general degradation of conditions in the French overseas department.
The protest has been led not by a labor union but by a diverse collective that sometimes appears to speak with several voices. Local politicians, surprised by the movement’s power, have struggled to keep up with it.
After initial days of tacit support for the movement, businesses that have been unable to function for weeks have begun to call for the movement to end. Whether local law-enforcement authorities will use these signs of strike fatigue to forcibly remove the trucks blocking the roadways was unclear.
A visit by French government ministers to negotiate an end to the crisis proved fruitless. The ministers represent a government that will leave office in May after elections and could not meet the protesters’ demand of a 3-billion-euro ($3.2-billion) economic aid package.
French President Francois Hollande, who is not running for re-election and whose relevance to French politics is declining by the day, offered to meet a delegation from French Guiana in Paris. The offer was refused as too vague.
The protesters received support from the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who said in a speech that “all my sympathy is on their side, because in Guiana, as elsewhere, we have committed the error of inattention. And Guiana is not the only territory beyond continental Europe that finds itself in this situation. Many others, by the way, don’t understand that these regions are fully part of Europe.”
One French space industry official with long experience in French Guiana, while expressing irritation at Juncker’s statement — the European Commission’s negligible support for the spaceport is a sore point between Brussels and Paris — said it nonetheless illustrated the problem.
“There has been this idea that being in a French overseas department, the Guianese can hope for a lifestyle identical to that of metropolitan France. But that’s impossible. This is South America — Brazil on one side, Suriname on the other, and an uncontrollable border.
“What’s needed now is a political solution that accepts this reality while doing what we can to improve the life of the local population,” this official said.
A modern spaceport in the Third World: What could go wrong?
A flourishing space-launch facility in a Third World setting has become a rallying cry for some of the activists, who have used the spaceport’s strategic importance to the French government as a means of pressure.
Protesters conducted an all-night sit-in in a space center conference room after its director, Didier Faivre, admitted he could do nothing more than promise he would convey their message to CNES headquarters.
Protestors apparently hoped the power of the Guiana Space Center Director was such that he could pressure the French government to meet the demands for increased aid.
During this period, Arianespace and CNES have had zero leverage, admitting privately that they have no idea how long the paralysis will last.
CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall, a former chief executive of Arianespace, told an April 4 session at the National Space Symposium in Colorado that he was “very confident that we will resume with the launches in the coming days.”
Industry officials said that it would take CNES and Arianespace 10 days to prepare for a launch once the roadblock have been cleared and transit to and from the spaceport, and to French Guiana’s airport, returns to normal.
Arianespace had planned six launch campaigns between January and April, and a record 12 launches for the full year: seven heavy-lift Ariane 5 rockets, three medium-lift Europeanized Russian Soyuz vehicles and two Vega small-satellite launch campaigns.
That schedule assumed a launch-free month of May. But with late-March and April launches of two Ariane 5 rockets and a Soyuz — all carrying commercial telecommunications satellites — now out of reach, May will be a catch-up month.
Even this scenario assumes the demonstrators accept the loss of face that would follow any decision to end their movement without a further government concessions beyond the 1 billion euros already promised.
Arianespace’s appeal to French Guiana parliamentarians
Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel on April 12 wrote the four French parliament members from French Guiana, reminding them that Arianespace’s financial health is good for the territory.
“The loss of a month of activity is estimated to cost millions of euros in additional charges for Arianespace and the industry working at [the Guiana Space Center], and the customers are exposed [to costs] as well,” Israel said.
“If the roadblocks continue, plans to conduct 12 launches in 2017 will be threatened, which would have heavy financial consequences for Arianespace and for the thousands of employees working at or for the spaceport.
Israel said 9,000 jobs in French Guiana are directly or indirectly supported by the space-launch activity, representing 40 percent of French Guiana’s entire private-sector work force.
Arianespace did not immediately respond to requests for clarification about the “millions of euros” in additional charges — whether the revenue in question was lost or just deferred, and whether Arianespace and its contractors have insurance policies in place to cover events of this nature.
Given the state of the global launch market, Arianespace’s customers for the most part are unable to take their business elsewhere. They’re just as stuck as the Ariane 5 rocket blocked in its final assembly building since March 20.