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Under the shadow of Sisyphus

Plan for reviewing the space program enhances dialog with universities draws it closer to academia

MIGUEL BOYAYANParts of the multimission platform: single structure for satellites with different missionsMIGUEL BOYAYAN

In an already classic image, presented right in the beginning of the book A Space for Science: The Development of the Scientific Community in Brazil, sociologist Simon Schwartzman compares the Brazilian researcher with Sisyphus, the Greek hero condemned by the gods to push to the top of mountain an immense stone, which, from there on high, would always roll down – and he would have no other way out but to start again, albeit suffering from the useless and repetitive work. Anyone who worked on the Brazilian space program, or simply followed it, over the course of the last two decades, felt like Sisyphus, in the imminence of – yet one more time – starting again, when a fire completely destroyed the third prototype of the satellite launch vehicle (SLV), at the beginning of the afternoon of August 22, a Friday. The 19-meter tall rocket, capable of reaching an altitude of 1,000 kilometers, and the launch pad itself in Alcântara, Maranhão, were transformed into a heap of twisted metals that stood out on the plain, as soon as the smoke from the fire dispersed.

It will probably not be easy to overcome the curse of Sisyphus, which has now been snuffed out in other fields of Brazilian science – genomics, for example -, but carries on like a shadow over the efforts to build the launch vehicle: the other two prototypes also exploded, in 1997 and 1999, soon after being launched. In a way that was even more crushing than in the previous episodes, for having caused the death of 21 technicians and losses estimated at R$ 36 million, the accident in August laid bare the frailties of the Brazilian space program, kindled a debate about the ways in which it has been run, and set out the results that it has or could have arrived at, yes, results there are, like the maps that indicate the advance of deforestation in the Amazon basin, or the weather forecasts that appear every night in the television newscasts.

Kicked off 42 years ago with the support of the then president Jânio Quadros, space research is not limited to the building of rockets or to the desire to put astronauts in orbit around the Earth. In Brazil, research in this area has been kept up with a slender budget, and a management model regarded as not very agile, tied up with civilian and military research institutions, with their own styles and paces of work. Today, the belief is that revising this model would be one way of at least reducing the risk of other accidents, from which not even the most advanced countries like the United States and Russia escape. “We are at a fundamental moment for defining the course and the concepts for the Brazilian space program”, comments João Evangelista Steiner, a physicist from the University of São Paulo (USP) who, at the end of December, concluded a three-year spell as the secretary coordinating the research units of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT).

The attempt is now being made to turn around a historical tendency and to give the Brazilian space program more transparency, at the same time that greater integration is promoted with the universities, whose participation in the development of satellites and rockets has been very rare. Up until now, there has not exactly been a fruitful dialog between the two institutions – one military and the other civilian – that are running space research: the Aerospace Technical Center (CTA), run by the Ministry of Aeronautics, responsible for the development of the SLV, and the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), linked to the MCT, which takes care of the satellites.

The CTA and Inpe teamed up in 1980, with the start of the Complete Brazilian Space Mission, which sets out to win autonomy in the development and operation of the satellite launch vehicle, along with the construction of a launch pad, in Alcântara, which was inaugurated in December 1989. From that moment onwards, despite being neighbors in São José dos Campos, the CTA and Inpe have followed different paths. While Inpe gained time in the development of satellites by means of international agreements for the transfer of technology, the CTA was left only with the path of solitary work, under a strong international blockade. The countries that have mastered the technology for building launch vehicles neither pass it on nor sell it, for strategic reasons. After all, one and the same rocket may either carry a satellite or a missile to be used militarily. But the blockade also has commercial reasons. Countries like the United States, China and Russia, which already have their own rockets, do not want one more competitor in this lucrative market: each satellite launch, the price may be from US$ 15 million to US$ 25 million.

Closer together
The distance between the two institutions may be inevitable, up to a point. “Inpe cannot be accused of taking part in research that has warlike purposes, so as not to lose credibility in the international agreement”, warns Leonel Fernando Perondi, Inpe’s general coordinator for space technology and engineering. Today, the problem is that their isolation seems excessive, in the view of Luiz Bevilacqua, the president of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), a civilian body created in 1994 to coordinate the space program. Linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology, the AEB replaced the Brazilian Commission for Space Activities, subordinated to the General Staff of the Armed Forces, and gave a civilian nature to the Brazilian space program, before that associated with the military. “I am trying to create more active communication channels between the CTA, Inpe, the universities and the industries”, says Bevilacqua.

The effort to bring them back closer to each other had started, without any ado, shortly before the Alcântara disaster. At the beginning of August, three months after having actually taken over at the AEB, Bevilacqua had sponsored a meeting at the CTA with representatives of the two institutions from São José dos Campos and of about 20 companies that cater to the space program – four of them are now working on the so-called multimission platform, a structure common to the satellites that are to be launched from 2006 onwards. At the meeting, according to Bevilacqua, each one was able to set out what he was doing or wanted to do, and the difficulties and resentments.

His plan is to organize this October an even larger encounter, to which researchers from universities and institutes interested in taking part in the space program should also be invited. “There is a willingness to cooperate, both at the CTA and at Inpe”, observes Bevilacqua, having made room for university researchers to be part of the commission coordinated by the CTA, which is going to investigate the causes of the accident in Alcântara. Under pressure from scientific institutions, the Chamber of Deputies announced the creation of an independent commission to look into the disaster at the end of August and to promote a wide-ranging assessment of the Brazilian space program. “The civilian Brazilian space program is recognized all over the world, because there has been continuity, something not to be seen in the military program, where the teams remain, but the chiefs are frequently changed, and the rhythm of work is lost”, says Nelson de Jesus Parada, who ran Inpe at the time the Space Mission was implanted – later on, between 1993 and 1996, he was FAPESP’s director-president.

Back at the end of the 80’s, signs already started to pop up that it was going to be difficult to reconcile the different rhythms of the two institutions, as the two timetables became more out of step and it became clear that Inpe’s first satellite would be ready well before the launch vehicle. Renato Archer, at the time the Minister of Science and Technology, then created a purely civilian strand of the program: he signed an international cooperation agreement with China, for the joint development of remote sensing satellites, more complex than those planned in the ambit of the Complete Brazilian Mission. In spite of the benefits – Brazil was already a habitual user of images from remote sensing -, the agreement with China caused some discomfort in the relations between Inpe and the CTA, for representing Inpe’s independence from the Complete Mission and from the CTA.

This month, in China
The agreement with China resulted in the construction of the first Sino-Brazilian remote sensing satellite, the CBERS-1 (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite), launched from Taiyuan in 1999 – after a five year delay – by the Chinese rocket Long March 4. Probably at the end of this month, also from Taiyuan and once again on board Long March 4, the CBERS-2 should be going up, in a launch accompanied by a group of 12 technicians and researchers from Inpe, who in August left the pad in Alcântara two hours before the fire with the SLV.

The CBERS-2 is making it into space least two years later than planned, to replace the previous satellite, which has a useful life of two years. A replica of the previous one, weighing 1,450 kg and with a cube shaped body with sides measuring 2 meters, attached to a solar panel 2.6 meters tall and 6.3 meters wide, the CBERS-2 should also go into a polar orbit, at an altitude of 778 km. Like the previous one, it is to send back images that indicate the use of the land or the spaces where a town may still grow, for example, with a resolution of 20 meters. “Have you ever imagined if, at the end of the year, the government were to say that it did not know how much deforestation has taken place in the Amazon?” asks Gilberto Câmara, an engineer from Inpe who is coordinating the Earth observation sector. “The CBERS is the guarantee that we shall have images of the Brazilian territory”, he adds, worried about the fact that an American satellite, Landsat-7, another assiduous observer of Amazonia, has stoppedworking, after four years.

Besides the Chinese satellites, there are two data communication satellites in the air. The first, the SCD-1 – a prism with an octagonal base 1-meter in diameter, 1.45 meters high and a weight of 115 kg -, went into orbit in February 1993, launched in Florida, United States, by an American rocket, the Pegasus. With a useful life estimated at one year, the SCD-1 is still working, since it consumes the energy from its battery slowly. In 1998, one year after the CTA launched the first prototype of the SLV, which went off course and exploded 65 seconds after leaving the ground, Inpe put the SCD-2 into orbit, with the same American launcher. Both are to be found at an altitude of 750 kilometers, following the line of the equator, capturing and sending back at 100-minute intervals meteorological (humidity of the air and temperature) and hydrological (flow of the rivers and dams) information.

Despite the impasses, the strategic importance of the space program for the country is not in question. One of the main arguments presented in defense of the program by Bevilacqua, José Viegas, the Defense minister, and by brigadier Tiago da Silva Ribeiro, the CTA’s director, at the hearings in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, is that the territorial expanse of the country calls for continuous monitoring, in the name of its security and sovereignty. “There is no country as big as Brazil without an ambitious space program”, adds Steiner. Furthermore, Alcântara is one of the best positioned launch bases in the world – its closeness to the equator makes it possible to take advantage of the rotational force of the Earth and to save fuel – and there is a consensus that it should not just work to the advantage of putting foreign satellites into orbit.

Another of the program’s gains is the Integration and Testing Laboratory (LIT in the Portuguese acronym) inaugurated in 1978 to support space research. Parada recalls how difficult it was to set up this laboratory, which simulates the conditions that satellites will face up there – with temperature variations from minus 70° to plus 70° in less than two hours -, besides doing from 20 to 30 tests for manufacturers of such dissimilar objects as mobile phones, medical equipment or automobiles. “Nobody wanted to transfer technology, nor to sell any equipment, which was regarded as being a matter of national security”, says Parada, who managed to get help from the French government, after insistent refusals from the Americans. “In the end, with a lot of diplomacy and a careful negotiations, we succeeded.”

Under the Soviet moon
What is at stake at this moment is how to run space research in Brazil. Steiner recalls that the American space program also used to be divided between various departments when the then Soviets, more agile, kicked off the space race in October 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to go into orbit. Weeks later, Sputnik 2 went up, with Laika the dog, the first living being to go into space. In December of that same year, the United States launched their first satellite, the Navy Vanguard, which blew up. As, from then on, the space race was mixed up with the arms race, feeding the political conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Kruschev took the opportunity to taunt: “America sleeps under the Soviet moon”. In response, in the following year, the American government created Nasa, a civilian institution, with the purpose of making space research more agile and of centralizing it; and, in 1969, they put a man on the Moon.

Another criticism is that the Brazilian space program is subject to Law nº 8666, or the law on tenders, which requires public tender processes to be opened up for purchases or hiring services. “The program ought to have the flexibility to choose the companies on technical criteria, not on price”, complains Perondi, from Inpe. According to him, the control over spending could be done by using external auditors. “In this area, each product is unique”, he says. On a broader plane, the veryrole of the institutions is being questioned. It is not known for sure, for example, whether the Brazilian Space Agency really ought to remain linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology, like Inpe, or go back, with more autonomy, to the Presidency of the Republic, to which it was linked originally. In the weeks that followed the accident in Alcântara, the newspapers from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia published a series of stories questioning the course of the space program. “It would be difficult to question the dedication and the competence of the CTA personnel”, wrote in the Folha de S. Paulo Air Brigadier Aldo Vieira da Rosa, Inpe’s founder and today an emeritus professor of Stanford University, in the United States. “We could, if that much, examine whether the most suitable place for developing rockets is there, or whether an activity like this ought to be contracted with private industrial concerns.”

As a consequence of the knots that they are now trying to untie, the Brazilian space program has built up an estimated delay of at least 20 years. “Up until the 80’s, we had a space program that was just as advanced as India’s”, Perondi comments. “Today, India now has total qualifications for building and launching rockets and remote sensing, scientific, meteorological and telecommunication satellites.” India’s government has dedicated about US$ 400 million a year to the space program, motivated, it is true, by the imminent prospect of wars with its neighbor, Pakistan. Without an enemy in sight, the Brazilian government set aside for the program this year some US$ 35 million. But there may be more next year. Summoned to explain the program and the Alcântara accident in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, Bevilacqua and José Viegas took advantage of the hearings to request a reinforcement to the budget for next year of US$ 130 million, which would be additional to the US$ 40 million already assured in principle.

Bevilacqua has worked intensively on international cooperation agreements, to allow the space program to advance more rapidly. At the moment, the most promising one is being stitched together with the government of Ukraine, interested in using the Alcântara base to carry out the final tests of their launcher, the Cyclone 4. Now at the final stage of drafting, the agreement should be signed, according to the president of the AEB, with the visit to Brazil of the president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, scheduled for this month. This is one of the reasons for which there is the desire to rebuild the launch pad and start the manufacture of another prototype launch vehicle. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared right after the accident and reiterated some weeks later that the SLV should be launched before the end of his term in 2006.

The Ukrainians are interested in increasing the force expended by the rockets of the Cyclone 4 launcher with devices adopted in the Brazilian SLV, according to Bevilacqua. They have also proposed the joint development of a liquid fuel, adopted internationally, together with solid propellants, in the rockets that put satellites into orbit. To participate in the market for placing low earth orbit satellite constellations, it will be necessary to develop vehicles that use only liquid propulsion, or, in a mixed solution, solid propulsion as well, recognizes the director of the CTA, air brigadier Tiago da Silva Ribeiro, in an article in the magazine Parcerias Estratégicas (Strategic Partnership). When called on by the Pesquisa FAPESP magazine, he did not reply to the questions sent him.

Up until know, the CTA has known only how to produce solid fuel, chosen at the beginning of the Complete Mission for the prospect of being able to be used also in ballistic missiles and for showing similarities with high energy explosives – liquid fuels are more complicated to handle. It was a decision that was coherent with the military goals and with the commercial interests of a group of companies from São José dos Campos, which in the 80’s used to be a center for weapons exports, in particularly to the Middle East. The focus on the weapons industry, though, has made access difficult to technologies for the civilian use of the launchers themselves, whose development remains under the exclusive care of the CTA. “We are prisoners of the past”, comments Gilberto Câmara, from Inpe.

For the time being, the Brazilian space program is oscillating between distinct scenarios. The first of them implies the continuity of the current model: the CTA manages to get resources to reconstruct the SLV and the Alcântara base and to launch another prototype in 2006. As a second alternative, Brazil establishes international cooperation agreements that lead to a totally different project for the launcher. In the third option, the country follows the example of India, tries to recover from the delay, considerably expands the budget , and starts a new SLV program, with a complete revision of the objectives of the program and synergy between civilian, military and university research. Another way would be to give up building launchers of its own, like Canada and Argentina, and concentrate on the technologies for satellites and their applications. In the fifth way out, perhaps even more improbable in the light of today’s reality, Inpe and part of the CTA would be unified under the command of the AEB, which would then be in effective command of the space program. The next few months are decisive for defining how much space research in Brazil is going to change.