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space program

Radiograph of a tragedy

Shortages of human resources and materials were responsible for the accident with the VLS-1

The explosion of the VLS-1 in August of last year killed 21 technicians at Alcântara, in the state of Maranhão

Agência BrasilThe explosion of the VLS-1 in August of last year killed 21 technicians at Alcântara, in the state of MaranhãoAgência Brasil

The report concerning the causes of the accident with the Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS), which occurred on August 22nd of last year at the Launch Center of Alcântara in the state of Maranhão, exposed the fragility of the Brazilian Space Program. The commission responsible for the investigation concluded that the accident had started by way of the “untimely” functioning of a thruster rocket on the first stage rocket, brought into action by an electrical current or an electrostatic discharge, without however identifying the “active fault” or that is to say, errors or a violation with immediate results. Nevertheless, it was confirmed that “hidden faults”, related to the measures taken before the accident, as well as the shortage of human resources and materials, contributed partially to consummate the tragedy that killed twenty one technicians.

The commission made a series of recommendations for taking up the project again and the continuity of the space program, such as, for example, greater investments in specialization; training and the recycling of the work force; exchanges with external institutions, among others. It recommends “by obligation”, an improvement in the management model integrated into the systems and the organizational analysis of the Aeronautic Space Institute (IAE), linked to the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA).

“Some of the organs that make up part of the program, such as the IAE, would benefit if they had a more intense relationship with the other institutes, universities and companies at the project level. This would help to advance the project more rapidly and to identify difficulties before problems occurred”, says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the rector of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), who was part of the investigation commission.

Brito adds that as well it would be “desirable” if the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) had a position that “stood out more” in the Brazilian space program. He also suggests that the agency, which today is integrated into the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), should be linked to the Presidency of the Republic. “It becomes complicated to generate organs of other ministries”, Brito Cruz argues.

Outmoded Model
The institutional model of the Brazilian program is outmoded, in the opinion of Carlos Américo Pacheco, who was the executive secretary at the MST during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, when there were also two unsuccessful attempts to launch the VLS.

“The set-up at the CTA needs to be re-evaluated since there is institutional obsolescence. As well, one needs to evaluate which new institutions could be linked to it”, he defends. He suggests instituting a science career plan and the development of projects in conjunction with companies. Nevertheless, he disagrees with Brito Cruz about the changes in the institutional links of the AEB. “I assisted the migration of the agency, previously linked to the Presidency of the Republic, to the MST. In the presidency there were many difficulties with the budget because there fiscal restrictions are enormous. It’s an illusion to imagine that it would function better there.”

The AEB is counting on the release of R$ 100 million for restarting the project and reconstructing the infrastructure at the Alcântara Center. Some measures are already being taken: the government opened a civil service exam in order to fill 167 positions at the CTA to complete the framework of the employees and to replace the work force lost by the accident. “The way forward is to invest more resources in technology and human resources, as well as giving continuity to the programs of cooperation with other countries”, stated the minister of Defense, José Viegas.