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Broken barriers

In practice, the Brazilian space program began 40 years ago

The moment was one of pure excitement. Since October 1957, when the Soviets sent the first artificial satellite into space, four months ahead of the Americans, the world accompanied the then recent space race with enchantment. The possibility of reaching and getting to know new worlds outside the Earth gripped everyone and started off a new era of unprecedented scientific and technological development. Not to be left aside from these advances, in 1961 the Brazilian government created a commission to study and to suggest a policy for space research. A dozen people, all from the field of Aeronautics, began to work at the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA).

In 1963, engineers from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) joined these pioneers and went on to find a place in the northeast of Brazil close to the equator that could serve as a base for launching small and medium sized orbital rockets. The choice fell on a 5,000 square meter site 18 kilometers from Natal, in Rio Grande do Norte, called Barreira do Inferno [Hell’s Barrier] by the fishermen – there is a red cliff at the place that shines intensely at sunrise, and, from the sea, gives the impression that it is in flames. The site chosen, being close to the equator, means fuel saving, and being located next to a beach, ensures safety at the moment of the point of impact of the various stages of the rockets.

Finally, the climate is stable, with a well-defined rainy season. It was there, in practice, that Brazilian space research began. On December 15, 1965, with the Barreira do Inferno launch center partly set up, Nasa’s Nike-Apache rocket was successfully fired and tracked – the objective was to carry out measurements in the lower layers of the ionosphere. Since then, Barreira do Inferno has seen a large number of launches and has been able to build and test Brazilian rockets. Later on, when more daring projects were being thought about, the center became too small.

It was then that the Alcântara Launching Site, in Maranhão, arose. It is located in a much larger area, where fuel savings of 25% are possible, compared with Cape Canaveral, in the United States, when it puts satellites into orbit around the equator. “But Barreira do Inferno has never stopped launching rockets”, explains Adauto Motta, head of the Regional Center of the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) in the northeast. Motta wrote the book Esboço Histórico da Pesquisa Espacial [Historical Outline of Space Research in Brazil] (Editora Foco) and was head of operations at Barreira do Inferno for six years. Nowadays, the place is used to test rockets with a military purpose and for research, with a payload from Inpe.