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Brazzil - Space - September 2003

Brazil's Space Race on Throttle Up

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that
despite the destruction of Brazil's satellite launcher, his government
remained committed to developing its own launch system.
The Science and Technology Minister vowed that a new
prototype of the vehicle would be ready for launch by 2006.

Frank Dirceu Braun


Twenty five years ago or so, Brazil first dreamed of becoming a global space power.

The dream was called the Brazilian Complete Space Mission, and it included, among other things, designing and building a rocket to loft its indigenously developed satellites from its very own launch center located on Brazilian national territory near the equator.

On August 22, 2003, part of that dream was shattered when the experimental Veículo Lançador de Satélites, or VLS, exploded on its launchpad, just three days shy of its scheduled liftoff, killing 21 space technicians, incinerating the launchpad, and destroying two Brazilian designed research satellites. The premature ignition of one of the VLS's four solid rocket boosters set off a disastrous chain of events—the 40 tons of solid rocket fuel erupted into a massive fireball of such intense heat that it melted the base of the steel structure which enclosed the rocket, causing the massive structure to topple over.

"It is now our turn to taste the bitterness of death, the death of 21 noble workers in our space program who were fighting for the development of our country," said Brazil's Defense Minister, José Viegas, in announcing a 30-day investigation to determine the cause of the accident.

"We have to be strong and persevere"

Viegas also reminded Brazilian senators during subsequent congressional hearings that, sadly, few major space programs had developed without being touched by tragedy.

Although by far the most catastrophic, this was not Brazil's first failed attempt to launch its rocket. Twice before, the South American country had tried to launch from the remote base on its Northeast coast, and twice before the rocket had to be destroyed prior to reaching orbit. The major difference, of course, is that there had been no previous loss of life.

On December 2, 1997, Brazil's first VLS had to be blown up shortly after liftoff. The VLS's maiden flight was terminated by ground controllers when one of the rocket's four solid fuel boosters failed to ignite, sending it into an erratic trajectory.

This author was in the launch control room on December 11, 1999 during the second launch attempt, when range safety officers reluctantly destroyed the VLS, just 3 minutes after liftoff. After a near flawless launch, the rocket roared smoothly into the cloud cover, followed by a prolonged, tense silence in the control room while officials waited for the desired signal that confirmed staging separation. That signal never came.

Looks of quiet disbelief were quickly supplanted by outright sorrow among the collected crowd of technicians and officials. Some of those people had worked on the VLS most of their professional lives and they took the second failure very personally. One could only imagine the effect of the latest fatal accident on these same individuals—this time the VLS took the lives of 21 of their fellow colleagues with it.

After the explosion, officials in Brazil's space program reminded their countrymen and women that tragedy had also touched other nations during the early days of their own emerging space programs. They pointed out that even countries with the most advanced space programs, such as Russia and the United States, had experienced deadly failures.

That reminder, however, did not make the most recent experience any less traumatic for the South American nation.

During an emotional memorial honoring the 21 space technicians killed at Alcântara, Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that the Federal government would set up an educational fund covering the college expenses of all their children.

Perhaps most significantly, President Lula also proclaimed that despite the destruction of Brazil's VLS, his government remained committed to developing its own launch system. Robert Amaral, Brazil's Science and Technology Minister, also vowed that a new prototype of the VLS would be ready for launch by 2006.

"The government will work at its maximum to prepare the rocket in 2 and a half years," Amaral said.

A Little History

Despite being conceived during the years when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship, the Brazilian space program was never planned with military objectives in mind, according to Brazilian journalist Hélio Contreras.

Contreras, writing in the Brazilian news magazine Isto É, said the primary objective was to guarantee that Brazil had access to satellite launch technology in order to monitor the natural resources spread across its vast territory, especially the gold and mineral reserves in the remote Amazon region. Space research and the associated technological spin-offs, were also expected to play a pivotal role in the future strategic development of the Brazilian economy.

According to the same magazine article, although not all the major technological spin-offs have yet been assimilated, Brazil's space program has already brought solid benefits into the nation's industrial base. In the article, Former Air Force General Hugo Piva, considered one of the fathers of the VLS, points to technologies of high resistance steel that may have been utilized by EMBRAER, Brazil's major high tech company, and one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers.

But building its own rocket was not an easy undertaking, particularly since the country was at first blocked by international non-proliferation agreements from receiving assistance from any of the signatory nations, who also happened to possess the most knowledge and experience in designing and building launch systems. The United States led the way in discouraging Brazil from building its own rocket.

The concern at the time was that any vehicle, which could launch a satellite into orbit, possessed what was called "dual use" capability, which meant that it could also lob explosive warheads across vast expanses of land. Later, when Brazil agreed to reorganize its space activities under civilian control and sign a non-proliferation document known as the Missile Technology Control Regime, the international restrictions were relaxed a bit, but they never completely went away; "technology transfer" concerns made designing and manufacturing a national rocket, virtually from scratch, a daunting task.

Some in Brazil's space program have never quite forgiven the U.S. and other countries for making that task quite so difficult.

As one high ranking Brazilian official complained at the time, "Brazil wants to enter the commercial space arena, and it's tired of having to pay third parties high fees to launch our very own satellites. Plus we don't like having to be put on a waiting list for that privilege."

Ominous Suggestions of Sabotage

According to the article in Isto É, many officials in Brazil's Air Force command believe the failure of the first VLS was due to sabotage. The "ghostly" suggestions of sabotage have always been at the edge of discussions concerning Brazil's previous launch failures, according to the magazine. But the most recent comments from some congressmen and senators investigating the August 22 accident have not been so veiled.

Brazil's Defense Minister, José Viegas, dispelled such suspicions of sabotage in the latest tragic accident, but he did add an ominous admonition in testimony before a group of senators.

"Brazil's rocket program makes some powerful nations very unhappy. There has always been very strong international opposition and restrictions against any kind of technology transfer to our program and, we will not forget that Brazil had to develop its rocket all on its own because it encountered extreme difficulty even to purchase basics components outside the country."

At least at this point, Brazil will not be dissuaded from having its own rocket.

President Lula's populist government may be quite different from the right wing military dictatorship that gave birth to the Complete Brazilian Space Program, but they both share in a strong commitment to build a national launch system.

The President of the Brazilian Space Agency, Luis Bevilacqua, has already presented the Minister of Science with a request for funds to rebuild the rocket, the launchpad, and to train a new launch crew to substitute the ones killed, according to Rio's O Globo newspaper. In the same article, Bevilacqua's boss, Science Minister Amaral also revealed that Brazil has spent about $1 billion dollars on its space program in the last 20 years.

Brazil's Troubled Road to Space

Troubles with its rocket program are only the latest in a series of recent setbacks to Brazil's space dreams. Brazil was to have become a participant in the International Space Station program by now, contributing certain sophisticated hardware to the Station. But when the development costs for the highly specialized equipment grew out of control, according to Brazilian space officials, the country was not able to fulfill that commitment.

The flight status of Brazil's first astronaut, Air Force Major Marcos Pontes, who was supposed to have conducted national scientific experiments aboard the orbiting station, is also unclear as this story goes to press. Pontes has already completed his training at Johnson Space Center, but has not yet received a flight assignment.

Brazil's attempts to reach an agreement with the United States permitting U.S. rockets or U.S. made satellite components to be launched from the Alcântara launch complex were also discontinued recently when President Lula's government chose to shelve the already signed U.S./Brazil bilateral Technology Safeguards Agreement.

Brazil's hopes were to turn Alcântara into the world's first international commercial spaceport by allowing foreign clients to launch their rockets and payloads from the Brazilian base, which is in an ideal location (just 3 degrees south of the equator) to incur significant fuel savings. Since U.S. launchers or payload components comprise about 80 percent of the world's commercial space market, it was necessary to assuage America's technology transfer concerns in the form of a bi-lateral Technology Safeguards Agreement before such dreams could be fulfilled.

The TSA, signed in 2000, was to have prevented transfers of sensitive U.S. technology during launches of U.S. satellites or rockets from Brazilian territory. But Brazilian congressman found some of the document's provisions to be overly restrictive. In fact, congressional consideration of the agreement eventually turned itself into a controversial national debate.

Several Brazilian legislators charged that the Agreement violated Brazilian national sovereignty by essentially establishing a U.S. restricted zone within Alcântara, barring even Brazil's custom officials from inspecting containers coming into the base. Another highly controversial provision seemed once again aimed at thwarting Brazil's rocket building ambitions; the provision, called "draconian' by Brazilian legislators, specifically barred Brazil from using any of the revenues generated from leasing the base, in the pursuit of developing its own launcher.

The previous Brazilian administration (which had negotiated and signed the agreement) insisted that the agreement was no different than those signed by other nations. Brazil's then President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, continued to press for congressional ratification for some time, insisting that the TSA was essential for the Alcântara launch base to become economically self-sufficient. Nevertheless, the new administration chose to withdraw the document from congressional consideration earlier this year.

Russians and Ukrainians Come to Brazil

Russia and the Ukraine are not among the major space powers, (and potential commercial space competitors) that have discouraged Brazil from building its own rocket. Both Russia and the Ukraine had previously signed cooperation agreements with Brazil, in which they promised to provide advanced rocket engine technology.

Initial plans called for Brazil to develop its next generation rocket in cooperation with the Russians—producing a "hybrid" rocket incorporating the solid-rocket fuel technology used on the Brazilian VLS, with liquid-fuel upper stage technology provided by the Russians.

This, however, was to have occurred only after Brazil had first shown it could successfully launch its solid fuel rocket, according to one high ranking Brazilian space official at the time. Instead, on the day of the VLS accident, the head of Brazil's Air Force, General Luiz Carlos Bueno, had the grim task of inviting a group of six Russian space specialists to Brazil to assist in the accident investigation. The invitation, to what Isto É magazine called "a Dream Team" of the Russian Space program, represents, "more than a temporary request for assistance. It also signifies a more strategic approximation between the two nations", according to the magazine.

In a very sad coincidence, the Brazilian parliament approved the Brazilian/Ukrainian T.S.A., on the very same day that the VLS exploded in Alcântara. The TSA allows Ukraine to launch a version of their Cyclone rocket from Alcântara. Shortly after voting to ratify the TSA with the Ukraine, Brazilian Congressman Fernando Gabeira stated that the Ukrainians offered much better conditions than the U.S. did under its TSA proposal.

"The Ukrainian TSA is much more advantageous for Brazil than the one offered by the U.S. because it doesn't interfere with our national sovereignty and it contains clauses that ensure mutual cooperation. This, in turn, will allow us to expand the technological base of our country," Gabeira said.

On the deadliest day of Brazil's space program, Science Minister Amaral elaborated on the extent of Brazilian/Ukrainian cooperation envisioned for the future.

"The fourth stage of the Ukrainian Cyclone rocket, which today has three stages, will be developed jointly with the Ukrainians in Brazil. These agreements with the Ukraine and with Russia, are fundamental to the development of our nation's cutting edge technologies," Amaral said.

Earlier in the year when Brazil and the Ukraine agreed to form a joint venture company to develop and market the new version of the Cyclone-4, Amaral also pointed out that, "the Ukraine has advanced launch system technology which we need. And unlike other major space faring nations, they are willing to share their technology with us."


Sabotage Scenarios

Here's the 1st case for sabotage, according to the Brazilian news magazine Isto É. In 1997, when the fourth solid rocket booster of the 1st VLS failed to ignite, the launch was aborted and the rocket destroyed. The formal investigation which followed concluded that the problem lay in a failure of the ignition system to provide sufficient electrical current to produce the necessary "explosion" to ignite the solid rocket.

Suppliers of the ignition system components denied their parts were flawed. One of the manufacturers told Isto É that all the individual components of their system had passed the necessary quality control tests when they were delivered. Instead, they claimed the possibility of sabotage in the improper assembly of the system. The manufacturer further stated that since 1997 they have continued to provide components to the Brazilian space program, and no modifications have been requested.

Coincidentally, speculation surrounding the latest fatal accident centers on possible premature ignition of one of the solid fuel boosters, while the vehicle was still undergoing tests.

It is very difficult to ignite a solid fuel rocket. NASA uses two mortar shells to ignite each of the U.S. space shuttle's solid fuel boosters, according to an Associated Press story, which quotes James Oberg, space author and former Space Shuttle engineer at Mission Control in Houston.

Oberg speculated that the Brazilian investigation would focus on what prematurely set off the explosive charge.

Here's the 2nd case for sabotage: Suggestions of sabotage of the 2nd VLS launch attempt on December 11, 1999 centers on what the magazine claims is the, "as yet unexplained activation of the rocket's autodestruct mechanism seconds after liftoff". However, while in the launch control room during that second launch attempt, this author was told by Brazilian space officials that range safety officers had very purposely destroyed the rocket 200 seconds into its flight when it's second stage failed to ignite.

Frank Dirceu Braun is an award-winning writer and producer, with over 25 years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism. Braun has worked as an Associate Producer for 60 Minutes, and as an Investigative Producer for the C.B.S. affiliated stations.

Born in Brazil, and raised in the U.S., Braun is a graduate of U.C.L.A. After graduation, he returned to Brazil to help launch "The Latin America Daily Post", an English language daily newspaper patterned after Europe's International Herald Tribune.

As a journalist, Braun has specialized in covering the space programs of the United States and other nations, for over a decade. Braun currently serves as co-director of the Permission to Dream telescope project, and vice-president for public affairs of the National Space Society. In 1994, Braun was the Executive Producer for the 25th Anniversary of Apollo 11, mankind's first landing on the moon. Vice-President Al Gore was the keynote speaker; Braun also produced the 25th and 30th Anniversary Galas of the Apollo 13 mission.

In December 2002, Braun and James Cameron's Earthship. TV co-produced the 30th Anniversary of Apollo 17, America's last mission to the moon.

Your comments are welcome at frankbraun11@hotmail.com  or fbraun2@earthlink.net  

Copyright © 2003 by Braun Communications.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part, in any form.




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