Kourou labor discord further postpones Ariane 5 launch

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WASHINGTON — Labor protests in Kourou, French Guiana, have prompted Arianespace to postpone an Ariane 5 launch of two telecommunications satellites until at least Thursday.

Arianespace said Monday it was postponing the launch of a pair of satellites for Brazil and South Korea from Tuesday to Wednesday because it was not able to get the rocket out to the launch zone “due to a social movement.” However, strikes and protests continued Tuesday, prompting Arianespace to push the launch back to Thursday.

Local newspaper France-Guyane reports that local electricians, hospital employees, farmers and transportation workers — including the drivers that transport the Ariane 5 rockets — are among those protesting working and living conditions in the South American town that’s home to Europe’s main launch center. Locals blocked roads around Kourou Monday and Tuesday, preventing Arianespace from transferring the rocket from the final assembly building at the spaceport to the launch zone. Evry, France-based Arianespace launches the Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets from the Guiana Space Center.

One of the reasons cited for the protests directed towards the space center is the French space agency CNES’s position on the Kourou Medical and Surgical Center (CMCK) board of directors. According to the paper, protestors don’t want the CMCK to be privatized and are blocking access to the space center to send a message to the space agency. CNES oversees the Kourou spaceport, with the European Space Agency contributing some of the funding.

Local employees of Endel, the French industrial maintenance company that trucks the Ariane 5 rockets for Arianespace, are striking to reopen wage negotiations. Those discussions began Monday night, but failed to reach an agreement, according to France-Guyane. The paper reports that other members of the union UTG, as well as the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDTG) and Force Ouvrière unions, are also involved in various demonstrations.

Kourou Strikes Labor
Unions in Kourou calling for strikes. Credit: France-Guyane

The Guyanese Union of Road Transport (UGTR) is also protesting the use of foreign trucks from the European construction company Eiffage, France-Guyane says. CNES in July awarded Eclair6, a consortium led by Eiffage, a $222.2 million contract 2016 to build the launch facility for the future Ariane 6 rocket. UGTR said it asked the spaceport not to bring in foreign trucks to do work that that its members could do with equally capable trucks of their own.

Arianespace said that the launch vehicle and both satellites are safely stored away in a stand-by mode. Company spokesperson Aaron Lewis declined to provide details on the strike when asked for comment.

The mission, designated Flight VA236, is Arianespace’s fourth mission for the year. SGDC, an X- and Ka-band satellite, is the first satellite for Visiona Tecnologia Espacial, a joint venture between Telebras and Embraer. Telebras is operating the Ka-band payload, while the Brazilian Ministry of Defence has the X-band. South Korean operator KTsat’s Koreasat-7 is a Ku- and Ka-band satellite for broadcast and connectivity services across Asia.

Thales Alenia Space of France built both satellites.