Brazil's space program dealt severe blow

By CARMEN GENTILE, UPI Latin America Correspondent

SAO PAULO, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Brazil will have a hard time replacing the 21 space rocket technicians and scientists killed during preparations for a scheduled launch, which could prove to be a severe blow to the nation's fledgling space program, the mission's launch coordinator said Monday.

Gen. Tiago Ribeiro told reporters after visiting the decimated site of Friday's disaster in the northeastern state of Maranhao that it would take three or four years to ready another rocket for launch. Yet he stressed the need for Brazil to maintain a sense of urgency in its pursuit to become Latin America's first nation to successfully launch a rocket into orbit.


"We have to have clear and fast action to recruit the (necessary) resources so that the dream may continue," said Ribeiro.

While the cost of Friday's explosion was estimated at $30 million, the greater damage to Brazil's space aspirations was the loss of some of its top minds when the on of the 66-foot VLS-1 rocket's four main engines was accidentally ignited. The blast caught mission controllers and space officials completely off guard, as the craft was not set for launch until Monday, accounting for why so many technicians and engineers were on the platform at the time of the explosion.


The accident also hampers Brazil's aspirations of self-reliance when it comes to satellite technology, for which it must currently rely on other nations. Monday's scheduled launch was set to carry two satellites.

According to the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), the country has already invested some $280 million in developing rockets and satellites for telecommunications, scientific study and for participation in the International Space Station currently under construction by 16 nations. Brazil does not profess a desire to use its rocket program or satellites for military purposes.

Meanwhile, Brazilian officials said Monday that a two-part investigation was under way to determine the cause of the accident and whether certain individuals could be faulted for the explosion.

The Vice Director of Brazil's Institute of Aeronautics and Space Mauro Tolinky said that the spontaneous ignition could have been cause by an electric discharge, caused simply by a metal object touching one of the fuel reservoirs. AEB officials said they will analyze video of the accident to ascertain its cause.

That said, Ribeiro reiterated an earlier claim also made by other Brazilian officials including Defense Minister Jose Viegas Filho that the accident was not likely the result of sabotage. Brazil appears eager to quell possible conspiracy theories regarding recent AEB accidents.


Although Friday's accident was by far the worst in Brazil's history, it is the nation's third attempt to successfully launch a rocket.

In November 1997, AEB launched a rocket that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean moments after take off. Two years later in December 1999, another VLS-1 prototype failed after takeoff and was destroyed remotely by flight controllers. Neither accident resulted in deaths, however.

Defense minister Viegas said Monday that the dual investigations into Friday's accident will take 40 days. That's good news to AEB officials eager to put the memory of Friday's accident behind them, as federal officials said earlier that the inquiry could last as long as 90 days.

Confidences levels were so high leading up to the launch -- scheduled for Monday -- that reports of Friday's explosion were initially dismissed by AEB head Luiz Bevilacqua as fireworks from a nearly festival.

Although the scheduled launch of the $6 million rocket was the agency's third attempt, the preparation of the doomed craft was considered flawless.

"If there had been any risk, there would never have been so many people on the platform," said Ribeiro.

In addition to the 21 killed in the blast, another 20 people were reportedly wounded, though officials later recanted those reports, saying all those within the immediate vicinity of the explosion were killed and no one else was injured.


Morbid reports detailed that pieces of the victims' bodies were airborne moments after the explosion. Officials Monday said that six of the 21 victims had been identified so far.

Although officials are investigating several scenarios as to what happened Friday, they have publicly stated the possibility of sabotage was unlikely.

There is no hope of salvaging the charred remains of the rocket, but Brazilian officials must wonder what's to become of their space program considering that many of its top minds were thought to be on the platform when the explosion occurred. Since all the bodies have yet to be identified -- some were reportedly so badly mutilated that DNA tests are needed -- it could be days or weeks until officials can calculate the true extent of the damage.

It could deal a devastating blow to Brazil's aspirations for space despite its efforts to promote the Alcantara Launch Center as an ideal international setting for future rocket launches.

From a geographic perspective, Alcantara is practically the perfect site for future space travel, as it so near to the earth's equator. Since the planet rotates faster there, rockets need less fuel to enter space and can carry larger payloads. Both the United States and the Ukraine are in negotiations with Brazil to possibly use Alcantara for future launches.


Brazilians leaders have already attempted to reassure their countrymen that Friday's explosion will not hinder the nation's long-term aspirations for space.

Following the rocket's explosion, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said -- via his presidential spokesman -- that the "Brazilian space program is an important scientific and technological project for the country," adding that those killed in the blast would be honored for their contribution to Brazilian space travel.

On Monday Lula offered his condolences to the families of those killed saying "21 men died rendering an invaluable service to the nation."

Other officials seemed more forthcoming with their feeling of disappointment and frustration with yet another misstep by Brazil's space agency.

"Without a doubt this accident represents a setback to Brazil's space program," the defense minister acknowledged following the explosion, though he stressed they would try to make it "as short-lived as possible."

"We regret deeply the loss ... but I can guarantee to everyone that the space program will continue and that those who died did not die in vain."

Only time -- and a successful, incident-free launch into space -- will tell if that's true or not.

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