Space program

With feet a long way off the ground

The voyage of the Brazilian astronaut will have scant influence on the development of the country's technology

Respected voices from the Brazilian scientific community have broken the patriotic choir that surrounded the ten-day voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) of lieutenant-colonel Marcos César Pontes, the first Brazilian to enter into orbit. “The experiments taken into space don’t justify an investment of US$ 10 million”, says the physicist Rogério Cézar Cerqueira Leite. “It’s a paid for ride”, says Ennio Candotti, the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), referring to the fact that the journey did not generate demands of national technology. In an article published in the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, the biologist Fernando Reinach proposed an accounting: with the money that the country paid the Russian Space Agency to guarantee the journey, it would have been possible to duplicate the number of doctorate degree grant holders in the field of aerospace abroad or to form almost 300 doctors here in Brazil. “This is yet another case in which investments in education were exchanged for publicity”, he says.

But, in the end, what was the balance of lieutenant-colonel Pontes’ journey to the ISS? From the practical point of view, the Centenary Mission – an allusion to the 100 years of the flight of Dumont’s 14-Bis and celebrated by the image of the astronaut using a replica hat of Santos Dumont – served to take up top eight scientific experiments in microgravity environment, an area of interest of the disciplines such as biology, biotechnology, medicine, materials science, combustion and the development of medicines. An example: the challenge of the permanence of man during long periods in space is the knowledge of the consequences of the absence of gravity upon human physiology. The Centenary Mission manager, Raimundo Mussi, pointed out that the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB in the Portuguese acronym) has been offering to scientists for years the opportunity to test experiments in microgravity aboard rocket probes, small capsules that take experiments into space for some minutes. “Pontes’ journey is the natural unfolding of this research”, says Mussi.

One of these experiments lent itself to the field of the popularization of science, with the germination in the ISS of bean seeds sent in by public school students from the town of São José dos Campos. The others were follow ups of research projects. Among them one can highlight a test on enzyme reactions of industrial interest, the submission of bacteria to cosmic radiation for the study of the mechanisms of cell repair and the induction of the phenomenon of bio-luminescence using as raw material the substances responsible for the shine of the firefly: the luciferase enzyme and its substrate luciferin. “The analysis of the reaction images with luciferase and luciferin in zero gravity will help to understand the bonding of the small molecules with the enzymes”, explains the molecular biologist Vadim Viviani, from the Bio-luminescence and Luciferase Group of the Biosciences Institute, São Paulo State University (Unesp), Rio Claro campus. The research concerning the bio-luminescence, funded by FAPESP, has therapeutic interest. The genes of fireflies could be used as luminous biological markers, since, on being transferred to  bacteria, it becomes  luminous. “When the bacteria acquire light, it’s possible to accompany its progress within the organism. This procedure is already made use of in order to test the working of medicines, to detect if there is bacterial contamination in foods or to show the evolution of carcinogenic cells in animal models”, explains Viviani.

The study of microgravity is only one of the arms of the Brazilian space program. The program’s other objectives, of notably strategic content, are the construction of new national satellites, the development of a rocket launcher capable of taking the satellites into space and the reconstruction of the Alcantara Space Center, in the state of Maranhão, destroyed after the explosion of the Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS) in 2003, the tragedy that killed 21 people. The journey of lieutenant-colonel Pontes has no direct influence upon these phases of the program. The president of the Brazilian Space Agency, Sérgio Gaudenzi, admits that the main gain from the voyage belongs to the area of marketing. “Our space program had media coverage and a repercussion that it had never had previously and this has inestimable value”, he says.

The advantages of this exposure are difficult to measure, but Gaudenzi hopes that this has weight over the next few years during discussions in Congress about the space program’s budget. “The parliamentarians follow the desires of the population”, he says. In 2006 the Brazilian space program will have US$ 150 million to spend. This is the highest sum destined over the last few years. In previous years the budget had fallen to a meager US$ 25 million. The lateness in the development of launch rockets is attributed to this financial asphyxiation. The tragedy at Alcantara called the attention to the problem and brought about a change of posture by the government. Last year the close to US$ 100 million destined to the space program were almost integrally available and spent, a rare case in the generalized constriction of money allocation. “We made use of 99.5% of our 2005 budget, a record for the Esplanade of the Ministries”, says Gaudenzi.

If Congress and the government will be generous, only time will tell. It will not be for the lack of projects capable of developing national technology that the money will not be spent. The program for the construction of another VLS was retaken with advice from specialists from the Russian Space Agency and today the launch of a prototype is scheduled for 2007 and a second in 2008. In practice the two launches will serve only to test the technology and neither of them will take up a useful cargo. The idea is to use the experience with the VLS to develop a new generation of rockets, baptized Alpha, which will have a liquid fuel stage, technology that Brazil is still attempting to master. The first prototype of the Alpha family should be going into space in 2009. In the field of satellites, the forecast for 2010 is sending into space three more members of the Cbers family, with remote sensors, developed in partnership with China, and the creation of platforms capable of realizing varied missions. Another short term objective is to re-build the Alcantara base, in partnership with the Ukraine and to put it on the map for commercial rocket launches.

A second astronaut
Finally, there are doubts about what to do about the Brazilian participation in the International Space Station. Lieutenant-colonel Pontes began to receive his training to go to the ISS back in 1998, when Brazil promised to construct parts for the station to the value of R$ 120 million and the station had the expectation of maintaining up to seven astronauts permanently in orbit. Brazil did not honor its part in the agreement, but  Pontes continued on with his training at Houston. In 2003 the explosion of Columbia interrupted the space shuttle journeys, mainly responsible for taking parts and people to the station. Since then, the task has fallen to the Russian space capsules and only two or three astronauts remain in orbit at any one time. Next month the president of the Brazilian Space Agency is going to NASA, accompanied by lieutenant-colonel Pontes, to discuss if Brazil continues or not to integrate itself into the international ISS consortium. “We’re minority members and we need to evaluate if the main partners will take the initiative forward. Today there’s a discussion going on among between them if the benefits of the station are compensating the costs”, explains Gaudenzi. If the agreement were to be renovated, the AEB would have to set off a selection process to recruit a second Brazilian astronaut.