Spaceport introduction > Spaceport history
France made the decision to build its new launch base at French Guiana in 1964, shifting the country’s nascent operations to South America from the French Sahara.
Selection of what was to become the Guiana Space Center – also known as Europe’s Spaceport -- came after detailed studies of 14 potential locations pre-selected from a worldwide list.
Today, the Spaceport ranks as one of the most modern and capable space base facilities, with over 200 Ariane flights performed from this facility. Its scope was further expanded when Soyuz entered service in October 2011, to be joined by the Vega launcher in early 2012.
The early days: setting the stage with introductory launch vehicles
The Spaceport became operational in April, 1968 with the launch of a French Veronique sounding rocket.
Eight missions with France's Diamant B launch vehicle were performed beginning in March, 1970, followed in November, 1971 by the European Europa launcher.
Management and technical difficulties with Europa led to a complete overhaul of Europe's launcher activities – from which the Ariane program was born.
Ariane enters service with the ELA-1 facility
The ELA-1 launch complex was the first major launch facility used for Ariane. This launch site originally was built for the Europa launch vehicle, and was then adapted for Ariane after the Europa program ended.
The facility included a launch control center and the launch zone. In the launch zone, Ariane vehicles were assembled on the launch pad and protected by a mobile service tower during the build-up and satellite integration process. The mobile tower was rolled back prior to liftoff.
ELA-1 was the only Ariane facility that operated in this manner. Its ELA-2 successor, as well as the ELA-3 complex now used for Ariane 5, separated the launcher assembly area from the launch zone - allowing one vehicle to be prepared on the pad for its upcoming mission while another undergoes its build-up in the assembly area.
The ELA-1 complex entered service for Ariane on December 24, 1979 with the first liftoff of an Ariane 1 on Flight L01. During its operational lifetime, a total of 25 Ariane 1, Ariane 2 and Ariane 3 vehicles were launched from ELA-1. The final liftoff from ELA-1 occurred on July 11, 1989, when an Ariane 3 carried the Olympus satellite on the 32nd flight of an Ariane vehicle.
This historic facility is now being given a second life, as the ELA-1 site has been refurbished and modernized for use as the launch complex for Arianespace’s new Vega lightweight launcher.
Ariane 4 becomes the industry’s benchmark launcher
The Spaceport's ELA-2 launch complex supported the Ariane 4 vehicle family's fast-paced launch schedule from its service entry in 1986 through the final Ariane 4 mission in February 2003.
The complex consisted of two areas: the launcher preparation zone and the launch zone. These two areas were separated, allowing one launcher to undergo final checkout and payload integration in the launch zone while a second was being assembled in the launcher preparation zone.
ELA-2 was designed for approximately 10-11 launches per year with an interval of one month between successive missions. Arianespace maintained a high operational mission rate throughout the Ariane 4 program to meet commercial demand. A total of 116 Ariane 4s were launched from ELA-2, successfully orbiting 158 primary payloads (plus 24 auxiliary passengers) with a combined mass of well over 400 metric tons.
Entering the heavy-lift era with Arianespace’s Ariane 5
The ELA-3 launch facility was developed for Ariane 5, with the first mission performed from this site in 1996.
Its design benefitted from Arianespace’s extensive launch operations experience, and encompasses a launch vehicle preparation zone with separate Ariane 5 integration and final assembly buildings, the launch zone, as well as a dedicated facility for the production of propellant used in the center and aft segments of Ariane 5’s two solid rocket boosters. All of these areas are connected by a rail line system, facilitating the transfer of launcher components and the completed vehicles.
The ELA-3 facility’s ability to support a sustained mission rate is regularly demonstrated by the six to seven Ariane 5 launches performed by Arianespace annually, with a peak of nine flights conducted during a 12-month period. The heavy-lift Ariane 5 lofts single and dual-passenger payloads that range from telecommunications satellites and Earth observation platforms to scientific spacecraft and deep space exploration probes.
Beginning in 2008, the Ariane 5’s missions were expanded to include launches of the European-built Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo resupply spacecraft, bringing the Spaceport into the limited “club” of space centers that serve cosmonaut and astronaut crews aboard the International Space Station.
Soyuz comes to the Spaceport
Preparations for the Soyuz’ introduction at the Spaceport began in April 2004, as construction started on the massive ELS launch complex for this Russian-built workhorse medium-lift vehicle. With Spaceport’s new facility, its operational area is extended northward up the French Guiana coast.
The ELS facility includes a launcher integration building (known by its Russian designation: MIK), launch control center, and the launch pad with its massive 149 meter-wide X 123 meter-long flame duct.
Maintaining the long-established processing flow used for Soyuz vehicles at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, launchers at the Spaceport are integrated horizontally in an assembly building. This involves the mating of Soyuz’ first stage strap-on boosters to the Block A core second stage, followed by installation of the Block I third stage. The assembled Soyuz is then transferred horizontally by rail to the launch pad, where it is erected to the vertical position.
One of the Soyuz launch site’s distinctive features at the Spaceport is its purpose-built 52-meter-tall mobile service gantry, which enables payloads to be installed atop the Soyuz vehicle while in its vertical position – as is the practice in Arianespace operations and for other Western launchers. This represents a change from the horizontal Soyuz payload integration process at the Baikonur and Plesetsk Cosmodromes, with the gantry rolled into position on the launch pad – providing protection during payload installation and during final checkout of the vehicle. On launch day, the gantry is rolled back 80 meters to its parked position at 1 hr. 30 min. before scheduled liftoff.
Soyuz entered service with Arianespace at the Spaceport in October 2011 with an on-target maiden flight that orbited the first two European Galileo navigation satellites. In preparation for the historic introduction of this longest-operating launcher to the world's most modern launch base, a “dry run” exercise was performed in April-May 2011 at the Spaceport that culminated in a highly realistic simulated mission countdown and “virtual” launch of a fully-integrated Soyuz.
Completing Arianespace’s launcher family with the lightweight Vega
The Spaceport’s refurbished ELA-1 launch site will begin hosting launches of the lightweight Vega launcher in 2012, providing Arianespace with a comprehensive family of vehicles for its customers’ mission requirements.
Vega is tailored to carry the growing number of small scientific spacecraft and other lighter-weight payloads under development or planned worldwide.
The build-up of Vega is performed on its launch pad, where the solid propellant first, second and third stages are stacked, followed by installation of a bi-propellant Attitude and Vernier Upper Module (AVUM) and the payload with fairing.
A completed Vega stands approximately 30 meters tall, and is protected during the integration process by a mobile gantry.