Houston, We Have a Brazilian

We Have a 

    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
    September 1998.

    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’
    Pegasus rocket.

    Ideal Site

    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
    bigger plans.


    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 fbraun@adnc.com 

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