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The lessons from the tragedy

Destruction of the Satellite Launching Vehicle suggests a revision in the Brazilianspace program

Two days after the greatest tragedy in the history of Brazilian technology, which resulted in the death of 21 engineers and technicians and destroyed the Satellite Launching Vehicle (SLV) at the Alcântara Space Center in Maranhão on August 22, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) announced that the planning for will be maintained. A suborbital rocket, for example, should be launched around June or July next year. Neither should the negotiations with Ukraine, interested in using the Alcântara base for launching their own rockets, be jeopardized with the accident, according to the Minister of Defense, José Viegas.

The accident that shocked the country and made the international headlines raised doubts about the model adopted up until now for running the Brazilian Space Program. The death, under dramatic conditions, of the 21 engineers and technicians from the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA), of São José dos Campos, committed to overcome the challenge that Brazil imposed on itself in the 80s to develop satellites with national technology and to build rockets capable of taking them into space, has certainly intensified these doubts. “One has to learn from the mistake and go ahead, instead of taking fright and fleeing, not least to value the sacrifice of the people who died in the accident”, said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the rector of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), and an attentive analyst of national scientific and technological development.

More mobilization
To make headway more rapidly, Brito regards it as strategic to step up the frequency of the launches, which can be achieved with more resources and the mobilization of an even larger number of specialists. But he emphasizes: “The CTA needs to be the leading institution for the space program”, calling attention to the need for including in the program “a larger set of research institutions, companies and universities”.

Started 43 years ago with the creation of the Organizing Group of the National Commission for Space Activities, space research in Brazil shows a positive balance. On its own and with success, the country developed two communications satellites, the SCD-1 and the SCD-2, and, in partnership with China, produced the CBERS-1, for remote sensing. The program has also made it possible to nationalize the materials for making propellants the chemical compounds used as fuel, and of metal alloys and ceramic materials. The propellants developed for the Brazilian Space Program are produced today on an industrial scale and used as raw material in the manufacture of glues, paints and foams.

“The Program is important for its specific objectives, but also having brought about the development of a Brazilian precision industry, something that Brazil has a great lack of”, commented José Fernando Perez, FAPESP’s scientific director.In any country, it is certain that space programs are subject to risks. The United States is the country that has made most headway in this field, and also the one that has registered most accidents: since the fire of the Apollo 1 spaceship, in 1967, with the death of three astronauts, to the Columbia space shuttle, in February this year, when the crew of seven died.

In Brazil, the launch of two earlier prototypes of the SLV ended in failure, although without any victims: in 1997, the mission was aborted 65 seconds after the launch, because of a fault in the first stage of the rocket; in 1999, the rocket exploded after a fault in the second stage, 33 seconds after taking off. The accident of the 22nd , according to Major-Brigadier Tiago Ribeiro, a director of the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA), was caused by the spontaneous start of one of the four motors of the rocket. This ignition may have been caused by an electromagnetic wave, by an electrical discharge, or by a metal part coming into contact with the fuel tank, which burns until the end after being detonated. The heat of 3,000° Celsius, equivalent to half the temperature of the surface of the Sun, melted the rocket and the launch pad.

Price of technology
But there are people who see the lack of resources as a risk factor for the program. “There are no cheap routes to cutting edge technology, which has a high cost in terms of investment, people and national commitment”, notes Gilberto Câmara, the general coordinator of the Observation of the Earth sector, of the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe). In his assessment, the Space Program was not getting investments on a level with the challenges encountered. Launched 42 years ago, the program has consumed US$ 300 million and for 2003 has a budget of R$ 30 million, an amount regarded as ludicrous, in the assessment of the president of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) himself, Luiz Bevilacqua.

He was counting on at least R$ 45 million, after adding in the resources from the Sectorial Funds, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). It would be desirable to have something close to R$ 100 million. Even so, the investments would be equivalent to one third of countries like India. “With this level of investment, we are not going to realize the dream of having autonomy in space that our colleagues died for”, says Câmara.

Irreparable loss
On Monday 25th , Viegas guaranteed to the press that the lack of funds had not jeopardized the security of the SLV. The loss with the explosion was estimated at R$ 36 million. The SLV alone was valued at R$ 14 million, without counting the cost of the launch pad, which was made useless, and of the two satellites one of the Inpe and the other of the North of Paraná University (Unopar) which were already attached to the rocket and were to be put into orbit.

But the human losses are irreparable. Amongst the dead, 11 were graduates and 10 were technicians of an intermediate level, aged between 20 and 51. The absence has broken up entire teams of specialists in aerospace technology, the mastery of which is strategic, to the extent that the countries that have it, like the United States and France, do not pass it on, for strategic reasons: the commercial use of telecommunication satellites is a still restricted and very hotly contended market, estimated at billions of dollars. Brazil has a geographical advantage at least: Alcântara is the launch center located closest to the equator, which allows it to get the most advantage from the Earth’s rotation to give the rockets an impulse; there are fuel saving and therefore lower costs (from 13% to 31%, compared with Cape Canaveral, in the United States). Since its inauguration, in 1989, the Alcântara Center has put some 200 rockets into the air.