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From the big city to the jungle

Life of a Launch-Campaign-Manager in Kourou

The long winter had us in its grip. Just the right time to take a look at a job in the tropics. Some 1,400 people work at the spaceport in French Guiana. One of these is the new Galileo Launch Campaign Manager, Dr Alain Pajonk. in 2006 the Lyon born specialist relocated from the Seine to the Kourou River when he was offered an interesting job by MT Aerospace. Since then the 46 year old has been living and working, together with his family, in the humid and sunny northeast of South America.

When Alain Pajonk received the offer to take over leadership of the Physical Laboratories department in Kourou with its 24-strong multicultural team, his wife Eugénie was initially sceptical. The country doesn’t have the best of reputations: mosquitos, illnesses such as dengue fever, dangerous animals and high humidity. Moreover the youngest of their four children, their son Samuel, had just been born. Their family doctor advised the young mother against the move. But Alain Pajonk already knew the country, having been there 25 years earlier on behalf of the French space agency CNES during the glorious era of Ariane 4. His good memories and the family’s wish to lead a life closer to nature finally overcame all the doubts.

And so in January 2006 Alain, who is also a karate enthusiast, took up his work in the tropics. With outstanding commitment he and his team operate the physical measuring equipment and instruments at the spaceport. He is responsible for over 4,000 calibrations per year, from shock monitoring when the satellites arrive in Kourou all the way to the final tests under the payload fairing shortly before the launch.

Working in Kourou at constant 30 degrees Celsius and high atmospheric humidity

When working in the air-conditioned buildings it’s easy to forget the humid tropical climate, “but as soon as you go outside, you can’t ignore the fact that you’re close to the equator and in the rainforest,” explains Alain, who plays music in his spare time as well. At a constant 30 degrees Celsius and high atmospheric humidity, the sun shines with an energy of 2,000 watts per square metre and the rain showers can sometimes bring ten centimetres of water in less than an hour. So the rhythm of work in Kourou is adapted to the climate, especially because some members of the team have to operate in the demanding outdoor conditions. “You simply can’t be as efficient here as under European weather conditions,” says Alain Pajonk. However, the family quickly got used to the heat, with ventilators, a small swimming pool in the garden and weekend trips to the Kourou River.

Alain Pajonk taking a walk with his children Angela (left), Sarah (right) and Samuel on Devil‘s Island 13 km off the coast of French Guiana. © Alain Pajonk

But the climate has its good side, too: the breathtaking natural world of Amazonia with its amazing diversity of species. On his 15-minute commute from downtown Kourou to the spaceport, Alain often encounters sloths, monkeys or armadillos. In their own garden, iridescent hummingbirds and large green iguanas often provide a natural spectacle.

The children feel very much at home as well. Samuel has grown up in the tropics and is now twelve years old. His sisters Sarah (17) and Angela (20) were also young when they made the move and enjoy the greater freedom of life in natural surroundings and in a place which, with a population of around 25,000, has over two million people less than Paris. Their oldest daughter, Rabiatou, is now 25 and is studying marketing and sales in Lyon. The High School in Kourou is not bad, says Alain, but the study programme is limited. That's why Angela also went back to France last year to pick up her studies.

Due to Alain’s job, moving home is a recurrent theme for the family as a whole. The assignment contract with MT Aerospace would normally have expired in 2012. Discussions were already being conducted about a move to Chile in the Atacama Desert, where Alain was to work for the ALMA project. The family was close to packing their suitcases but in mid-2012 a fateful encounter took place. Alain Pajonk was asked to report to the Galileo project managers at OHB System about how MT Aerospace could support them with the Galileo satellite launches. His presentation, together with his experience from over 80 campaigns, was so convincing that since April 2013 he has been employed as Galileo Launch Campaign Manager in Kourou.

The offer came at the right time, because the family is very amenable to the idea of staying a little longer in French Guiana. For some years now Eugénie has been running a successful boutique in which she not only sells clothes but also handcraft articles such as sculptures and masks from her home country, the Ivory Coast. Once Samuel was old enough to attend kindergarten Eugénie, who is a graduate Germanist, looked for a new challenge and started her own business.

A better quality of life than in a metropolis

It isn’t paradise on earth, but the Pajonks have found what they originally hoped for with a life in the tropics: a better quality of life than they could find in a metropolis, wasting less time on commuting, being closer to nature, less environmental pollution and more conviviality and friendship than one experiences in the anonymity of the big city.

A typical weekend for the Pajonks involves hanging out with friends in the carbets (straw-thatched huts) on the Kourou River. Sometimes they make an excursion to the neighbouring islands such as the Îles du Salut. This former French penal colony is around 15 kilometres off the coast and became world-famous through the novel “Papillon” and its movie version. The family also enjoys other leisure activities such as going on hikes through the rain forest, visiting the neighbouring country Surinam and the Brazilian border area and taking walks along the Atlantic.

Alain at the spaceport in Kourou. © Alain Pajonk

One thing they have to do without is the physical proximity to the rest of their families. Their children really miss their grandparents and of course their daughters, says Alain, who himself misses cultural items such as the theatre, the opera and classical concerts, as well as the Alps where he used to go mountain biking. And the four seasons, especially the snows of winter, are another thing that the family would like to experience again after almost twelve years in the tropics. But fort he moment they are still in the grip of summer.

PERSONAL PROFILE

Alain Pajonk was born in Lyon, France, in August 1971. Following his doctorate in “Thermal, Thermodynamics and Energy Sciences” he became a team leader at Zodiac Aerospace Intertechnique in Paris. It was here that he also met his present wife Eugénie. Born in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, she was taking a degree in German Studies in Mainz and was on a visit to her sister in Paris, where she and Alain met for the first time. After becoming a pair they then lived together in Paris, adopted the African girls Rabiatou and Angela and had their own daughter Sarah. Their son Samuel was born just as Alain received the offer to work for MT Aerospace in French Guiana. Since 2006 the Pajonk family has been living in Kourou.

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