A Marriage of Cosmic Convenience Russia and Europe Launch a Tricky Partnership

For the first time, a Russian Soyuz rocket will lift off from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana this week. The site's proximity to the equator allows the rocket to carry larger payloads into space. But technical problems and cultural differences have plagued the partnership.

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The Russians are coming. And they want to fire off a rocket. The old man will have no choice but to flee. In fact, he's already looking forward to it.

"A rocket launch like this is almost like watching a second sun rise," raves Serge Colin. It's a spectacle he's enjoyed more than 60 times. "But, this time," he says, "it will be a very special day."

Colin, a Frenchman with a pointed moustache, is 80, but he seems much younger. Since retiring from a career as a ship's captain, he has worked as a museum guide on Ile Royale, the site of a notorious penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. The prison's ruins were made famous in the classic film "Papillon."

Shimmering in the distance behind the mainland coast lies a jungle the size of Austria that is home to only 200,000 people. French Guiana, lying north of Brazil, is a French overseas department, a tropical outpost of the European Union.

On clear days, Colin can see the launch pads at the spaceport in Kourou, where the European Space Agency (ESA) has been launching its Ariane rockets into space for more than 30 years. Since they live directly beneath the flight path, the island's roughly 20 residents are evacuated before each launch.

A Giant in a Strange Land

This Thursday, a Russian Soyuz rocket will lift off from the tropical paradise for the first time. If all goes well, the 46-meter (151-foot) monstrosity will hurtle into the sky dragging a fire trail behind it. Its mission is to launch two satellites into orbit that will lay the foundation for Europe's Galileo navigation system, which will compete with America's GPS satellites.

The Russians' new rocket launch complex, 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the European launch pad, is sealed off by three layers of barbed wire, checkpoints, teams of guards, video cameras and electric fences. "No details!" Jean-Claude Garreau snaps at a group of journalists at the site. "No detailed photos. This here is highly confidential!"

The ESA manager is standing in the shadow of the Soyuz rocket, a giant, cigar-shaped hunk of steel with a fuel capacity of more than 60 metric tons (132,000 pounds) of kerosene, laid out in an air-conditioned, hermetically sealed industrial building. Russian teams in khaki uniforms and heavy boots are bustling about the rocket.

The two men in charge stand out from the rest in their elegant tropical outfits of white trousers and leather loafers. Garreau is chatting with Dmitry Baranov from Russia's Samara Space Center. After working in the Kazakh city of Baikonur for several years, the 31-year-old has now come to French Guiana to make sure nothing goes wrong in Kourou. In mid-sentence, the men switch between French, Russian and space-industry jargon, complete with its cryptic terms, such as Mais bien sûr, Geo, Leo and Mik.

Space Power Plays

The Soyuz launch in the South American wilderness is a major event. The hotels are booked solid to accommodate the crowd of politicians, diplomats, business executives, journalists and lobbyists expected to attend the launch, including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The telegenic fireworks display will form the perfect backdrop for hand-shaking and back-slapping. But the rocket show is also a diversion from a drama unfolding behind the scenes as the three space powers -- the United States, Russia, and Europe -- compete for dominance in the satellite-transport business while simultaneously fending off competition from newcomers, including low-wage countries like China and India.

Europe's Ariane launch vehicle has an unusual disadvantage in this new space race: It's too powerful. With its state-of-the-art hydrogen propulsion system, it can heave a payload of more than 10 metric tons into a geostationary orbit. But since most satellites weigh less than half as much, impatient customers are often forced to wait a long time before another satellite is found for a cost-saving tandem flight.

Russia's Soyuz spacecraft has the opposite problem. Based at the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan, the rocket isn't powerful enough to cope with the size of many telecommunications satellites.

The spaceport in French Guiana offers the Russians an elegant solution. Located only five degrees latitude north of the equator, the earth's surface in Kourou moves faster than it does in Baikonur, which lies at a latitude of 46 degrees north. It's similar to how a carousel moves more slowly near its axis than along its perimeter. This thrust of additional tangential velocity near the equator boosts a rocket's performance. While the Soyuz can only hoist a 1.7 ton payload into orbit from the launch site in Baikonur, its performance jumps to three tons at the equator.

Two Years Late

As a result, the two competitors are dependent on one another. The Russians have the right rocket, while the Europeans have the right launch site. Both sides benefit from the arrangement. In return for being allowed to use the ESA's equatorial launch pad, among other things, Russia has held out the prospect of ordering aircraft from the Europe-based aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

But it's a tricky partnership. In fact, in this marriage of convenience, cooperation has been anything but smooth. As a result, the first Soyuz launch is now taking place two years later than originally planned.

One of the problems stems from the Russians' insistence on creating an exact replica of the launch pad in Baikonur that they were used to. The facility seems archaic with its four steel robotic gripper arms, which engage the rocket to hold it suspended over a giant concrete basin that laterally diverts the force of the blast.

The Soyuz is not just any rocket, either. It is the pride of Russia and, with a track record of more than 1,700 liftoffs, it is also the worlds' most successful rocket. Versions of the Soyuz have been flying into space since 1957. When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into outer space 50 years ago, he was traveling in a precursor model of today's Soyuz rocket.

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