On April 24, 1947, two years after the second world war ended, a ministerial decree of the French army established the Special Weapons Test Center (CEES, Centre d’essais d’engins spéciaux). In 1948, it became a property of the French Air Force, which renamed it Centre Interarmées d’Essais d’Engins Spéciaux (CIEES) – Interarmy Special Vehicles Test Centre. The location of the CIEES was French Algeria, and it was the first rocket launch site in Africa.
A rocket launch site is typically any facility from which rockets/missile launching activities happens. It may contain one or more launch pads or suitable sites to mount a transportable launch pad. An extensive safety area typically surrounds it, often called a rocket range or missile range. The range includes areas which launched rockets fly, and within which some components of the missiles may land. Tracking stations are sometimes located in the range to assess the progress of the launches. They are sometimes called spaceport or cosmodrome.
Geography and physics conspired to place our first gateways to space in the mid-latitudes, in sparsely populated areas as close to the Equator as feasibly possible. Due to Earth’s rotation on its axis, the ground underneath you is moving faster the closer you are to the Equator, just like the outer edge of a spinning record. This means equatorial launches leave the planet with more oomph, making the launches more efficient. It explains why many African countries were choice locations for early space launch activities.
Between 1947 to 1990, eight rocket launch sites were established, with 278 rockets launched between this time frame, although most of them failed to reach orbit. Almost all launch sites have however become defunct, with some promising to come back to life in the future. Here is an analysis of all eight locations.
Centre interarmées d’essais d’engins spéciaux (CIEES), Hammaguir, French Algeria
The French War Department ordered the study of self-propelled projectiles (rockets) in 1945, immediately after WWII. The outcome of that study by the Directorate of Studies and Manufactures of Armaments (DEFA) led to proposing the creation of a Rocket Studies Center to continue studying and developing ballistic missiles. The Center aimed initially to attempt to reconstruct the V-2 rocket based on blueprints captured from V-2 launch sites in France. In November 1946, a mission arrived at Colomb-Béchar, French Algeria, to study the site’s suitability as a missile range and launch facility. CIEES began operations at Colomb-Béchar six months later on 24 April 1947.
CIEES remained in use until 1 July 1967, when it was given to the government of newly-independent Algeria. French withdrawal from the CIEES facility and other military bases in Algeria was stipulated by the 1962 Évian Accords that ended the Algerian War of Independence. Following CIEES’s closure, French space launches relocated to the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana. In contrast, missile tests moved to DGA Essais de missiles in the department of Landes in metropolitan France.
During the period of CIEES’s existence, France attempted to launch a total of 231 rockets from the site, with only 4 of them reaching orbit from 1965–1967. CIEES was most notable for launching the “precious stones” series of rockets, which included the Diamant, the first French rocket to put a satellite into orbit, and the first non-US or Soviet missile to deliver a satellite to orbit. Other notable spacecraft included the first tests of the Europa rocket, the first rocket of the European Launcher Development Organisation (the predecessor to the modern Pan-European European Space Agency) and France’s first three geodetic satellites, the Diadem.
Concerning missiles, CIEES was the launch site for 1960s-era tests associated with the development of France’s land-based medium-range ballistic missiles – the SBSS missile program – and submarine-launched ballistic missiles – the MSBS missile program. It also served as the launch site for testing a myriad of other sounding rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.
The site, it seems, has since been abandoned since its terminal operations as a rocket launch site in 1967.
France’s rocket launch activities in Algeria was once again tested in the ancient town of Reggane. The Reggane site was operational from 1961 – 1965, attempting to launch ten rockets in total. France also did its nuclear testing program in Reggane, conducting four tests during the Algerian War in 1960 and 1961, before independence. This site is non-functional.
Shaba North, Kapani Tonneo OTRAG Launch Center, Zaire (DRC)
Between 1977 to 1978, Germany operated a Rocket launch site in Zaire, which attempted to launch three rockets, achieving less than 50km altitude. The launch sites were located in Shaba North, from where the first rockets launched by Orbital Transport und Raketen AktienGesellschaft/Orbital Forwarding Company (“OTRAG“). In 1979 OTRAG stopped launching rockets from Shaba North for political reasons. Its launching activities were later moved to Sabha, Libya. The location has remained shut down since then.
At the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt started a missile program. After the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the 1956 Suez Crisis, as the importance of ballistic missiles had arisen to penetrate Israeli airspace. Despite plans to launch earlier, including attempts to purchase ballistic missile from the Soviet Union, Egypt did not launch the site until 1962. From 1962 to 1973, Egypt launched six rockets.Although the site had officially shut down in 1973, in 2010, an analysis using satellite imagery from commercial sources indicated that between 2001 and 2009, the Jabal Hamzah facility experienced an increase in activity and expansion as new constructions took place including a new missile launch pad and horizontal processing building. There are no official reports on this yet, but Egypt might have, or will in the future, return to utilising the site.
The spaceport was named after its founder, Italian space enthusiast, Luigi Broglio. The centre was launched in 1964, and existed till 1988, launching a total of 27 rockets, nine of them entering orbit. The centre comprises a leading offshore launch site, known as the San Marco platform, as well as two secondary control platforms and a communications ground station on the mainland. In 2003 a legislative decree handed the Italian Space Agency management of the centre, beginning in 2004. While the ground station is still in use for satellite communications, the BSC is not currently used as a launch site. In March 2004, a delegation from the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and a Russian delegation went to visit the Luigi Broglio Space Center in Malindi, Kenya, to verify the technical conditions of re-use of the launch site for use by Russian launchers of the type START-1. The result of the visit has been extremely positive and both parties have agreed on the feasibility of launching from the marine platform.
Not much has been heard of the centre since then. Perhaps in the future, it will be brought back to life for spatial activities.
Sabha, Tawiwa OTRAG Launch Centre, Libya
OTRAG’s Sabha North project moved to Libya in 1981 and operated till 1982 before it was shut down. The centre had an unsuccessful one year spell before it was finally shut down. In 2004, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the Sabha base was linked with Libya’s nuclear weapons program. In September 2011, Anti-Gaddafi forces seized Sabha as part of the Fezzan campaign. No sign of a nuclear weapons program was found. The site remains abandoned.
In 1973, a solar rocket was launched in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, for solar research. It was an Aerobee rocket, one of America’s most beautiful. The launch site is no longer operational.
Overberg South African Test Centre, South Africa
The Overberg centre operated as a Rocket launch site from 1989 to 1992 and only served as a test site for rocket launching, without actually launching any rocket. Perhaps one of the most important in Africa, it has lived through time and is operational to this day. However, it is now known as the Denel Overberg Test Range and offers testing capacities for various spatial operations.Facilities at the site include missile launch pads, tracking radar, optical missile tracking systems, cinetheodolites as well as the use of Overberg Air Force Base, home of the South African Air Force Test Flight and Development Centre. The layout appears to mirror the testing site at Palmachim, suggesting Israeli input in the design process.
The site has hosted clients from Germany, Czech Republic, Singapore, UK, Sweden, Spain and Turkey.
The Future of Rocket Launch Sites in Africa
Currently, Africa does not have an active Rocket launch site, despite rumours that some of the old places are being revamped. Nigeria has also been working on a launch site for years and it may be an upgrade for the African Space community. Regardless of this, the former sites can still provide economic functions to host governments as tourist sites, especially for space enthusiasts. They may also be converted to research centres or at least used as testing sites, like the South African Overberg.
As more African countries continue to embrace space-faring and other space-related activities, it is high-time since Africa had rocket launch sites. The reopening will also contribute to attracting more foreign partnerships and investments in the African space sector. Egypt’s planned opening of a Satellite City may be an excellent opportunity to re-introduce African countries to rocket launch activities.
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