October 2002

Romancing the Skies

Brazil has had to pursue their space dreams alone and against
the opposition from most of the world's spacefaring nations,
including the United States. For over a decade, the U.S.
had strongly discouraged its ally from developing its own rocket.

Frank Dirceu Braun

There are only eight nations in the world capable of designing, building and launching rockets, which can place satellites into earth orbit; the U.S., Russia, the Ukraine, India, China, Japan, Israel, and France. Brazil, South America's largest and most powerful country, would very much like to become the ninth.

It has been working, slowly but steadily, to reach that goal for a long time. The nation has been building its own satellites for many years, and it also has a launch center, Alcântara, on its Northeast coast, capable of lofting satellites into various orbits. But what Brazil does not have to make it a truly independent, space faring nation, is a fully functional, reliable rocket of its own.

Brazil's space ambitions are not new. In 1979, the South American nation formulated what it called the Brazilian Complete Space Mission, a comprehensive program that included three long term objectives: design and build its own satellites, possess an indigenously manufactured rocket and develop a launch center on its own territory. So far, Brazil has proceeded well along the path to fulfilling the first and last of those goals. The second goal, having its own national rocket, has proven to be a bit more elusive.

Not that this country, with the eighth largest economy in the world, hasn't tried. But for most of those years, Brazil has had to pursue their space dreams alone, with little assistance from others, (except maybe the Chinese) and against the opposition from most of the world's spacefaring nations, including the only remaining superpower left on earth. For over a decade, the United States, although a friend, had strongly discouraged its ally from developing its own rocket.

Realizing better than anyone else that the so-called "dual use" rocket technology used to launch a satellite into earth orbit could just as easily be used to launch a missile with an explosive warhead, the U.S. opposed Brazil joining the world's exclusive "rocket club". It did so on the grounds that it was against encouraging the proliferation of technology which had military, as well as peaceful applications, to any nation that didn't already possess it

Led by the U.S., other nations in the world that did possess such knowledge banded together and formed what was known as the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international agreement that limited the missile related technology which could be exported to non-signatory nations such as Brazil. That effectively closed the door on Brazil. Henceforth it would not be able to obtain information that was vital for the further development of its rocket program, such as sophisticated guidance and liquid fuel propulsion technology.

To accommodate the proliferation concerns of the U.S., Brazil's government then decided to make a commitment, in the mid-nineties, to adhere to the MTCR guidelines. In 1995, when the Brazilian senate passed a law prohibiting the export of any "dual use" launch technology to other nations, the member nations voted to invite Brazil to join the Missile Technology Control Regime. This meant that, while the U.S. would not champion Brazil's rocket development program, at least in the future it would not actively oppose it either.

Brazil becoming a signatory to the MTCR also opened the door, eventually, to further Brazil/U.S. cooperation in space. In October 1997 during President Clinton's visit to Brazil, NASA and the Brazilian Space Agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding, permitting Brazil to participate in the International Space Station program. In exchange for a commitment to contribute $120 million worth of hardware over five years, Brazil was given the opportunity to launch a Brazilian astronaut to the I.S.S.

American Concerns

Brazil next turned its attention to the expansion of its Alcântara launch center. Brazil had invested about $300 million into the launch complex, which, it turned out, was situated in a uniquely attractive location. Sending commercial satellites aloft from Alcântara, just 3 degrees from the equator, offered significant fuel savings because the increased spin of the Earth near the equator provided additional momentum, or an extra "kick", to any rocket departing from there.

Over the years, many international companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing had expressed an interest in the possibility of launching their rockets and satellites from Brazil. The additional revenue to Brazil's treasury (some estimates had Brazil capturing about $14 million annually from leasing out some of its launch facilities) would prove to be an attractive inducement; enough to lead the Brazilian government to consider making some of its national territory available to foreign customers, thus making Alcântara perhaps the world's first international commercial spaceport.

But once again, U.S. concerns over the transfer of sensitive rocket technology resurfaced. In the eyes of some in the U.S. State Department, bringing the rockets and satellites of other countries to launch from Alcântara theoretically allowed Brazilian authorities (or other countries Brazil might do business with) access to sensitive technology which they otherwise would not have. These additional technology transfer concerns would have to be dealt with before Brazil could open up its base, even to foreign customers other than the U.S.

Why? Since the U.S. controls about 80 percent of the international commercial launch market (meaning that most satellites launched by any other country probably contain some U.S. built component), any agreement with a third party to launch its rocket or satellites from Brazil, would require an export license from the U.S. government. And the U.S. government wasn't about to issue those export licenses unless it was satisfied the technology would be protected from the prying eyes of Brazilian launch center authorities, or others.

By now, both governments had formed a closer relationship working on possible space station cooperation. Brazil and the U.S., therefore, already had a foundation upon which to enter into talks that would establish yet another mechanism to assuage U.S. technology transfer concerns. After a series of negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Felipe Lampréia, the two nations came up with a bilateral document known as a Technology Safeguard Agreement, which spelled out specific measures to preclude transfer of sensitive rocket or satellite technology to or from international clients launching rockets or satellites from Alcântara. Those measures addressed specific U.S. concerns that missile or other sensitive technology could make its way through Brazil into the hands of potential adversaries of the United States.

The T.S.A., as it was known, was signed in April of 2000 by Brazil's Minister of Science and Technology, Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg and the U. S. Ambassador to Brazil, but was not submitted to the Brazilian Congress for ratification until April 2001.

And that's when the problems started.

The submission of the T.S.A. to the Brazilian Congress, a full year after it was negotiated and signed, prompted harsh criticism from influential Brazilian congressmen and Brazil's media. The TSA has languished in the Brazilian National Assembly for over a year now while debate has centered upon certain key provisions in the agreement. From the U.S. point of view, those provisions prevent technology transfer, but from the perspective of its more vocal detractors, such as Brazilian congressman Paulo Marinho, they amount to "an abrogation of Brazil's national sovereignty". Congressman Marinho (from the PFL—Liberal Front Party, until recently allied to the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration and for years involved in several cases of corruption and fraud) said the conditions imposed by the agreement were "draconian".

"By agreeing to these conditions, we are essentially ceding part of Brazil's national territory to be used as a restricted American base of operations," Marinho said to the Brazilian and foreign media. Congressman Marinho also pointed out that if the agreement was passed in its present form, the U.S. could "theoretically" bring in military spy satellites secretly into Alcântara without the knowledge of the Brazilian authorities, citing the provision that prevents Brazilian customs officials from examining any of the closed containers carrying U.S. payload or launch equipment entering the port of Alcântara.

Critics such as Marinho claimed the pact also violated Brazil's Constitution.

"One of the provisions specifically outlines in great detail that only the U.S. can produce the identity badges worn by those allowed access into the restricted U.S. zones of the base," Marinho said.

Rocky Road Ahead

A U.S. government official, who was directly involved in negotiating the agreement, said that the TSA established "the framework which permitted the U.S. to agree to launches from Alcântara of rockets, or satellites that might have U.S. components [and therefore require U.S. export license approval], while at the same time allaying U.S. concerns about the potential transfer of sensitive and advanced missile technology to Brazil or any other nation that might operate at that base. Before the Technical Safeguards Agreement, the U.S. would have considered permitting launches from Alcântara as indirectly encouraging the development of Brazil's own rocket program and that is against our policy,"

The Brazilian Executive branch will have to mobilize its entire political base in the Congress in the next few months for the TSA to pass the Brazilian Congress without modifications, according to Brazilian Congressman Julio Semeghini, who supports ratification of the agreement. "There is nothing in the present agreement that prevents it from being signed. It is true that there are some provisions that were poorly written from a political point of view. But these problematic sections can be dealt with by including separate and parallel agreements that clarify the problematic sections, such as the ones forbidding Brazilian customs from inspecting the closed containers coming into Alcântara," Semeghini said. He belongs to the PSDB—Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy—the same party of President Cardoso.

Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho, president of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), is confident the TSA will be ratified. "The Congress may add certain declarations indicating its position on some of the Agreement's provisions it disagrees with, but it will not change or amend any section of the Agreement." he said.

The same U.S. government official, cited earlier, indicated that the U.S. will consider whatever modifications the Brazilian government may request in the Agreement.

"We prefer the document the way it is. But Brazil is a friendly country, and we would certainly talk to them and consider whatever they have to say. As long as it provides for avoiding technology transfer", the U.S. official, who requested anonymity, said.

Last year, the Safeguards agreement was approved by several key committees in the Brazilian Congress, including the influential Foreign Relations and National Defense Committee, but not without modifications to the controversial provisions

Failure to ratify the Agreement has already cost Alcântara a previously scheduled launch of a U.S. payload. Plans by the U.S. Air Force to launch the Communication/Navigation Outage Forecasting Satellite (C/NOFS) from Alcântara on a Pegasus rocket were scrubbed because the Brazillian Congress modified the accord, according to Air Force Capt. Scott Haskett, C/NOFS mission manager for the Air Force Space Test Program.

Waiting Pattern

The Air Force could not wait the additional time to re-certify the agreement before making its launch arrangements, so it decided in late 2001 to use the U.S. Army missile range on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. The TSA next goes before the entire Brazilian National Assembly, and later the Senate, before it is, or is not, finally ratified.

While the T.S.A. is winding its way through the Brazilian Congress, no commercial deals can be concluded, no clients signed up for Alcântara. An earlier interest expressed by Italy's Fiat-Avio to form joint-venture with the Ukrainian company Yushnoye to launch international payloads from Alcântara on the Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rocket, dissolved after Fiat-Avio was informed the U.S. wouldn't issue export licenses until a T.S.A. was signed with Brazil.

In the meantime, Brazil hasn't had tremendous success launching its own rocket so far, with two failures over the last five years. In November 1997, the first VLS rocket had to be destroyed 65 seconds after liftoff, when one of its four first stage boosters failed to ignite and the rocket began to veer off course.

I witnessed the second attempt to launch the VLS with a Brazilian designed and manufactured satellite on board in 1999. It too had to be destroyed, this time 200 seconds after liftoff, when the second stage failed to ignite. The assembled Brazilian Air Force brass and launch personnel took the disappointment of that failed mission quite hard. Brazil will make a third attempt to launch its small rocket before the end of the year, according to engineer Daniel Borges Neto, Director General of the Brazilian Space Agency.

"October is a good month, mainly because of the favorable weather," Borges said. "This third VLS will have the same configuration as the two previous rockets. The only difference is that we have identified the causes of the previous failures, and have made technical corrections." Even as it prepares for its next launch attempt, Brazil is having discussions with Russia on the possibility of collaborating on liquid-fuel rocket engine development for its next generation of launch vehicles (the same propulsion technology Brazil had been denied before signing the MTCR).

The VLS utilizes less complex, solid rocket propellant engines. Once the VLS has flown successfully, Brazilian space officials indicate they would also consider producing a "hybrid" rocket incorporating the solid-rocket propellant technology used on the VLS, with a liquid-fueled upper stage, possibly developed with Russia.

"It wouldn't make sense to throw away all the work we have done on solid-rocket technology and then replace the whole rocket with liquid fuel technology," the officials said.

After a Brazilian delegation led by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso visited Russia and the Ukraine earlier this year, an official from the Russian Space Agency, Rosaviakosmos, indicated that any potential cooperation between the two countries had not moved beyond "the discussion stage." The official also said Brazil had invited Russia to participate in an expansion of the Alcântara complex, using Russian investment and launch technology, but such a plan was not practical, from a financial point of view.

The Ukrainian part of that state visit, however, did yield specific cooperative agreements, including a Technology Safeguards Agreement. The key difference from the TSA Brazil signed with the U.S., according to one Ukrainian space official, is that the Ukrainian TSA does not contain any "political provisions".

Another official said the initial goal would be to raise $10 million—most likely from the two countries' national space programs—for costs such as launch site "reconnaissance work" and blueprints for new facilities. Brazil and Ukraine would have to raise the remainder of the project costs—estimated at $150 million to $200 million—from other sources, including loans and investment.

The official also said his agency had begun discussions with unspecified U.S. companies, but added that no deals have yet been made. In spite of the previous Fiat/Avio deal having failed, Brazil and the Ukraine were not about to give up on a collaboration to bring the Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rocket to Alcântara. The two countries simply decided to proceed on their own to form a joint venture company to take the place of Fiat/Avio.

A later, reciprocal visit to Brazil, headed by Valery Komarov, Director General of the Ukrainian National Space Agency, led to the establishment of a joint Brazilian/Ukrainian task group whose purpose is to determine the technical and infrastructure conditions necessary for such a joint venture company, according to the Director General of the Brazilian Space Agency. The Ukrainian delegation also evaluated the modifications to the Brazilian base's existing facilities necessary to accommodate the Cyclone 4 rocket. The Cyclone-4 is an upgrade of the Cyclone-3 rocket, which in its previous incarnation, during the cold war years, was known as a "satellite killer".

Finally in June, the Brazilians, led by Borges, returned once again to the Ukraine and are presently meeting in the joint Brazilian/Ukrainian task group; negotiations for the creation of the joint venture company were supposed to be concluded by September, according to Borges. The joint task group is set to come up with cost estimates, definitions of each country's responsibilities, an evaluation of the launch market, the potential return on investments, and an analysis of the necessary legal structures. Under the Ukrainian-Brazilian project, the first launch of a Cyclone 4 is tentatively scheduled for the end of 2004.

And what has happened to Brazil's involvement in the International Space Station? Five years after Brazil signed on to provide equipment to the I.S.S., including a rather important item known as an Express Pallet, whether Brazil will be able to fulfill that commitment is still an open question. Meanwhile, the Brazilian astronaut, Major Marcos Pontes, has completed astronaut training in Houston and waits for his ride up to become the first Brazilian to travel into space. It may be a long wait, since NASA hasn't quite decided what it wants to do with the Space Station and there is a long line of astronauts waiting to go up ahead of him.

Frank Dirceu Braun is an award-winning journalist who was born in Brazil and raised in the United States. After graduating from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), Braun returned to Brazil to help launch the Latin America Daily Post. Braun now resides in California and is a Producer/Writer for James Cameron's Earthship.TV.  Braun can be contacted at 

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