Brazil is more committed than ever to its space program after the
recent mishap with its VLS rocket, which had to be destroyed seconds after liftoff. Very
soon Brazil’s green and yellow colors will be adorning the suits of NASA’s crewmembers and
satellites will be launched from Brazil’s Northeast coast.
By Frank Dirceu Braun
By August, Brazil will be sending a candidate to the next astronaut class at Johnson
Space Center in Houston, according to Márcio Barbosa, director of Brazil’s National Space
Research Institute (INPE).
Why? A memorandum of understanding signed last October during President Clinton’s trip
to Brazil, between NASA and the Brazilian Space Agency, gives Brazil the right to
eventually send it’s own astronaut to the International Space Station.
"If you consider that the training takes about a year and half, to two years, we
should have a Brazilian in space by the year 2000." Barbosa said.
For its part, Brazil has made a commitment to provide $120 million worth of hardware
for the station. In exchange for research and crew privileges aboard the U.S. portion of
the low earth orbiting laboratory, Brazil, and more importantly, Brazilian industry, will
be providing hardware in a sort of barter agreement that is beneficial to both nations.
For the U.S., it allows NASA to increase the capabilities of the Space Station without
having to go back to Congress to ask for an increase in the Station budget.
For Brazil, it gives that country a chance to participate in the Space Station program,
gaining crew and science research privileges aboard the Station, while offering Brazilian
industry the chance to further develop their technical capabilities.
Brazil’s launch capabilities were tested recently when their first nationally developed
rocket, the VLS (Satellite Launch Vehicle), had to be destroyed 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. In spite of
that setback, Brazilian space officials insist the country will move forward with
scheduled launches in each of the next three years. The next launch is scheduled for
Where did all this Brazilian interest in space come from? For the last 18 years or so,
Brazil, without much fanfare, has been steadily building up its national expertise and
infrastructure, pursuing a trajectory to place it among the front ranks of the world’s
space-faring nations. And participation in the International Space Station is just the tip
of the iceberg.
A Little History
It all started in the late seventies. Late 1979 to be exact. That was when Brazil’s
military rulers decided their country needed its own space program. Today Brazil is a
democratic republic, but the Complete Brazilian Space Mission, or (MECB) as it was known,
established by those previous military governments, served as the blueprint for the
country’s current expertise in space technology.
The MECB envisioned three main areas of accomplishment for the nation. Brazil would
design and build its own satellites, it would create a space port from which to launch
rockets, and finally, it would design and manufacture a rocket, capable of lofting those
satellites into orbit. The first two goals have essentially been achieved. INPE has an
extensive, national infrastructure that includes a Satellite Tracking and Control Center
and the only Integration and Testing Laboratory for satellites in the Southern Hemisphere.
INPE, along with Brazilian industry, designed and built Brazil’s first satellite, the
SCD-1, or Data Gathering Satellite. The SCD-1 was one in a series of data collection and
remote-sensing satellites. Its purpose was to receive environmental data from 33 remote
platforms spread throughout the country. Information from those remote sights would allow
the Brazilians to monitor rainfall levels, tides and currents, wind speeds, and burning in
the Amazon rain forest.
The country had hoped to launch that satellite from its Alcântara launch site aboard
its own rocket. But, with a delay in the development of the VLS, the first SCD-I had to be
launched from Kennedy Space Center in February 1993 aboard Orbital Sciences Corporations’
The Brazilian government also plowed about $300 million into the development of its
Alcântara launch center in the Northeast of Brazil. Several smaller, sub orbital rockets
have already been launched from that site. With further development, Alcântara is capable
of serving as a world class commercial space port and has a geographical advantage that
few other launch sites possess.
Because it is 3 degrees south of the equator, the greater rotational speed of the earth
at that latitude gives each rocket an added boost, requiring less fuel to escape the
earth’s gravity. Brazilian authorities estimate fuel savings of over 30% for launches into
equatorial orbit. That would put Alcântara at a competitive advantage over today’s most
dominant commercial satellite launch facility, the Europeans’ "space port" at
Kourou in French Guyana.
The rest of the world, of course, has not been oblivious to this economic competitive
edge. Over the past year, more than one potential foreign suitor has come forward, bearing
proposals to upgrade the facility in exchange for the right to launch their rockets from
there. So far, no deals have been struck, although João Ribeiro Jr., the head of
Infraero, the state owned company selected to manage Alcântara, said that negotiations
with one unnamed foreign partner, in particular, were moving forward and should be
complete "near the end of this year".
With the first two elements of its Complete Space Mission in place, all Brazil needed
now was a nationally designed and developed rocket. That was to have been the VLS, and
that was when Brazil’s space program hit a series of obstacles. First, the Brazilians were
stymied in the development of their rocket when the world’s seven richest nations (the G-7
nations) refused to export the necessary technology until Brazil signed the Missile
Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Later, budgetary constraints impeded the program.
Finally, this past November, the VLS lifted off from Alcântara, carrying onboard the
second in Brazil’s series of data gathering satellites, the SCD-2A. Unfortunately, the $5
million SCD-2A was also lost when the VLS was destroyed, representing a significant loss
of important environmental and scientific data, Barbosa said.
China & Brazil
Other elements of Brazil’s space program continue on track, however, according to
Barbosa. A cooperative satellite program with China, the China-Brazil Earth Resources
Satellite system (CBERS), begun in 1988 when Brazil’s space program was blocked by the G-7
nations, calls for the launch of two remote sensing satellites from China in June and
September of 1998.
Barbosa says that Brazil is negotiating with China for two more follow-on satellites,
and that with four satellites, they will consider setting up a joint company,
"possibly in the U.S.", to market those satellite images to the world market.
That gets back to what Brazil has in mind for its investment in space. The country is
looking for much more than the chance to fly an astronaut to the space station. Brazil has
It was not a coincidence that the 1st Brazilian Workshop on Commercial Space
Applications should be scheduled during the same period in which the agreement was signed
with NASA, permitting Brazilian participation in the Space Station. Márcio Barbosa,
speaking at the commercial space workshop near INPE’s headquarters, along with leading
Brazilian and international aerospace officials, summed up what Brazil’s future agenda for
the commercial space arena might be.
"This commercial space workshop that we’re participating in today in São José
dos Campos comes at an opportune moment, because we recognize that these same types of
discussions have been taking place in other countries. We are now joining these
discussions. We will be able to seize various opportunities which operating in space
offers in the fields associated with the drug industry, in biotechnology, and in the life
American Astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris, vice-president of Microgravity & Life
Science for Spacehab, also spoke at the Commercial Space conference. "Brazil’s
willingness to contribute its resources and technological expertise makes it a valuable
asset to the International Space Station," he said.
"The Space Station will position the participating countries to effectively
utilize microgravity to conduct research, expand knowledge, and advance technology. And
that, in turn, will lead to the development of whole new industries."
It was, in fact, Brazil’s work in microgravity protein crystal growth that drove much
of the country’s interest in securing a research slot aboard the Space Station. In
collaboration with the University of Alabama’s Center for Macromolecular Crystallography,
INPE had already flown protein crystal growth experiments on two previous shuttle
missions, STS-83 and STS-94.
According to the Center’s Director, Larry de Luca, structure-based drug design, which
comes from protein crystal growth research, should be able to reduce, by four years, the
time it takes to develop an effective drug to combat Chagas Disease, which presently
infects 12 million Brazilians. Chagas is a chronic and incurable parasitic disease and
Brazil, with over 160 million people, accounts for more than 40 percent of the disease’s
prevalence in the world.
Brazil’s commitment to its space program, reaffirmed many times by government and
business leaders after the latest mishap with the VLS rocket, spans more than one
objective, one program, and leads far into the future. It should come as no surprise then,
in the 21st Century, to see Brazil’s green and yellow colors adorning the suits of space
station crew members, nor to see many of the world’s major satellites being launched from
a remote, tropical site on Brazil’s Northeast coast.
Copyright © 1998 Braun Communications
Frank Dirceu Braun is an award winning journalist, born in Brazil and
raised in the United States. He is a graduate of UCLA. In the late seventies, Frank
returned to Brazil to help launch The Latin America Daily Post, an English language
daily newspaper, patterned after Europe’s International Herald Tribune. Frank now resides
in California and writes for McGraw-Hill and Space News. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org