Headlines > News > Brazil gears up for commercial spaceport

Brazil gears up for commercial spaceport

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Thu Jan 13, 2005 3:14 pm
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The Washington Times By Frank Braun: Los Angeles, CA, Jan. 12 (UPI) — A remote site on the rugged Northeast coast of Brazil may become one of the world’s first tourism spaceports, home to a fleet of sub-orbital rockets currently being developed by a handful of private space companies.

South America’s largest nation is open to hearing business proposals put forth by the likes of Sir Richard Branson, perhaps the best known of the new space entrepreneurs seeking to become pioneers in the embryonic space tourism industry.

Sergio Gaudenzi, president of AEB, Brazil’s space agency, said developing space tourism was among several recommendations emerging from a national conference held in Brasilia late last year to determine the country’s future goals in space. The conference participants, who included senior government, congressional and industry officials, also recommended continued work on domestic satellite and launch capabilities, as well as major industry-funded infrastructure upgrades to the Alcantara launch center, Gaudenzi told United Press International in a telephone interview in late December.

So far, the Alcantara launch complex, located just 3 degrees south of the equator, is home only to one pad dedicated to launching satellites aboard Brazil’s nationally developed VLS rocket. That launchpad is being rebuilt following the catastrophic explosion of the VLS in August 2003, which destroyed the tower and killed 21 space technicians. Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, has vowed to rebound from that tragedy, with a commitment to launch the VLS successfully no later than 2006.

In addition to lofting small satellites aboard its own rocket, Brazil also intends eventually to send up larger, geostationary satellites from Alcantara aboard the Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rocket. Last September, Brazil’s Congress appropriated about $5 million in supplemental funding to “begin immediate engineering work” on infrastructure improvements at the facility to prepare for future launches of the Cyclone-4.

The funding fulfills a requirement of a memo of understanding between Brazil and Ukraine that was ratified by the Congress last year. The memo requires the Brazilian government to make improvements to the Alcantara complex, but the South American nation has even bigger plans for its launch center.

Along with becoming an international spaceport, AEB also wants to transform Alcantara into an aerospace center that would host a university campus and a complex of space museums.

“We want to create a great international space tourism and scientific center at Alcantara, with university campuses, labs, hotels and an ecological reserve,” Gaudenzi said.

Gaudenzi, Brazil’s top space official, said AEB would take the first steps toward these goals sometime this year, when Brazil’s Congress votes on a proposal to open competitive bidding to private industry to invest in expanding the site’s basic infrastructure, including roads, port facilities and electricity. It will take three to four years to complete the proposed infrastructure improvements, he said, but added that industry can start investing in the project within the next year and a half.

“We will also allow private companies to buy or rent land for development of their projects, including hotels,” Gaudenzi said.

During the national space conference, Brazil also renewed its commitment to participate in the International Space Station, with a contribution of $10 million over the next four years, he said.

In 1997, Dan Goldin, who was NASA administrator at the time, and Luiz Gilvan Meyra Filho, who ran AEB, signed a memorandum of understanding that called on Brazil to contribute as much as $120 million worth of hardware over five years to the space station effort.

Brazil was to have provided six items, the primary one being an unpressurized logistics carrier known as an Express Pallet. The memo also gave Brazil the right to send an astronaut to conduct research aboard the orbiting laboratory, but a series of economic setbacks forced the country to scale back significantly on its original commitment. Then, in 2002, Brazil decided it could not provide the Express Pallet.

Gaudenzi said his agency will now propose a new agreement to NASA, in which Brazil would contribute one item, called Flight Support Equipment, valued at approximately $8 million. Embraer, Brazil’s aerospace giant, was to have been the prime contractor for the original $120 million contribution, but most of that work would have gone to companies outside the country, a knowledgeable source, who wished to remain anonymous, told UPI. Under the new agreement, the full $8 million worth of work will now go to Brazilian industry.

Brazil’s Congress, however, must first ratify the new space-station agreement before it goes into effect. The previous memo was not presented to the legislature for approval. Gaudenzi said he would take the ratified agreement with him to the United States later this year, when he hopes to meet with NASA’s new administrator.

Since 1998, Brazil has invested over $2.5 million in the training of its own astronaut, Lt. Col. Marcos Pontes, who completed his training in Houston in 2000 and was scheduled to fly as a mission specialist in 2001 with the Express Pallet. When that program was canceled, Pontes remained in Houston awaiting a new flight assignment.

Space station construction has been on hold for two years due to the grounding of NASA’s space shuttle fleet following the Feb. 1, 2003, shuttle Columbia disaster. In spite of its plans for a significantly reduced contribution, Brazil still hopes to exercise crew privileges aboard the space station, Gaudenzi said.

“This is important for us, for (Pontes) to fly. We want to participate, and his flight will also help to communicate the Brazilian space program to the Brazilian people,” he said.

A budget to accomplish Brazil’s new space program will be proposed at a meeting of the space agency’s superior council Jan. 25 in Brasilia. Gaudenzi said $70 million to $80 million will be proposed for space expenditures in 2005, rising to $100 million in 2006.

The new plan supplants the previous National Plan for Space Activities, known as PNAE, which had been in place since 1979. That plan formed the basic blueprint for Brazil’s current space program, including the domestic development of satellites, rockets and a national launch center.

Frank Braun is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in covering the Brazilian space program. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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