The birth of the Brazilian space program

Let’s look at the Brazilian space program. It all started with President Jânio Quadros who established in the 1960s a commission that elaborated a national program for the space exploration. Then, the main objectives of the Brazilian space program were set in 1979 by the Brazilian Complete Space Mission. This initial program has been gradually extended.

The return to a civilian-led government after twenty years of military rule (between 1964 and 1985) as well as pressure from the United States of America for the space program to be demilitarized, led in 1994 to the creation of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) which replaced the interministerial structure which depended on the military. Recently, in 2011, Argentina’s Minister of Defense, Arturo Puricelli, made a proposal to Celso Amorim for the creation of a unified South American space agency by the year 2025.

The birth of the Brazilian space program

Jânio Quadros, a Brazilian lawyer and politician who served as 22nd President of Brazil, established in the 1960s a commission that elaborated a national program for the space exploration. As a result of this work, in August 1961, the Grupo de Organização da Comissão Nacional de Atividades Espaciais or Organization Group of the National Commission of Space Activities was formed, operating in São José dos Campos, in the state of São Paulo. Its researchers participated in international projects in the areas of astronomy, geodesy, geomagnetism and meteorology.

The commission was replaced in April 1971 by the Institute for Space Research, currently called the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Since the creation of the then Technical Center of Aeronautics (CTA), the current Department of Aerospace Science and Technology (DCTA) of the Brazilian Air Force, in 1946, the country has been following the international progress in the aerospace sector.

With the creation of the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA), a fully qualified institution was formed to train highly qualified human resources in areas of state-of-the-art technology. The DCTA, through the ITA and the Institute of Aeronautics and Space (IAE), play a key role in the consolidation of the Brazilian space program.

In the early 1970s, the Brazilian Space Activities Commission (COBAE) was created to coordinate and monitor the implementation of the space program. This coordinating role, in February 1994, was transferred to the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB). The creation of the AEB represents a change in government orientation by establishing a central coordinating body for the space program, reporting directly to the Presidency of the Republic. Let’s now look at some of the most important features of the Brazilian space program.

The Sonda rockets

Sonda is a family of Brazilian-built sounding rockets which serves as an R&D (Research & Development) path to the VLS (Portuguese: Veículo Lançador de Satélites) orbital rocket. The Sonda 1 sounding rocket was a two stage rocket with a maximum flight altitude of sixty-five kilometres. With a total mass of one hundred kilograms, a diameter of eleven centimetres and a length of four and a half meters, it was launched between 1965 and 1966. The Sonda 2 sounding rocket is a single stage rocket with a maximum flight altitude of one hundred and eighty kilometres. With a total mass of four hundred kilograms, a diameter of thirty centimetres and a length of five meters and sixty centimetres, it was launched between 1990 and 1996.

The Sonda 3 sounding rocket is a two stage rocket available in two versions, the Sonda 3, weighing one thousand and five hundred kilograms, and the Sonda 3M1, weighing one thousand and four hundred kilograms. Both rockets have a maximum flight altitude of six hundred kilometres, a diameter of thirty centimetres and a length of eight meters. The two version of the Sonda 3 sounding rocket were launched between 1976 and 2002. The Sonda 4 sounding rocket is a two stage rocket with a maximum flight altitude of eight hundred kilometres. With a total mass of seven thousand and two hundred kilograms, a diameter of one meter and a length of eleven meters, it was launched between 1984 and 1990.

The VLS-1

The VLS-1 or Veículo Lançador de Satélites, which was to be capable of launching satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), was the Brazilian Space Agency’s main satellite launch vehicle. The launch site was located at the Alcântara Launch Center, due to its proximity to the equator. The VLS was cancelled after decades of development and high expenditures with poor results and a failed association with Ukraine that slowed the program for years. VLS-1 development started in 1984, after the first launch of the Sonda IV rocket.

Some prototypes had been built and launches attempted; during the V1 and V2 prototype launches, technical problems prevented mission success, but allowed the testing of several vehicle components. The V3 prototype exploded on the launch pad on August 22, 2003, two days before its intended launch date. The 2003 Alcântara VLS accident caused a considerable setback to the Brazilian space program. The project was terminated by Brazilian Space Agency in 2016.

The 2003 Alcântara VLS accident

The Alcântara Launch Center or Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara (CLA) in Portuguese, the closest launching base to the equator, is a satellite launching facility of the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) in the city of Alcântara, located on Brazil’s northern Atlantic coast, in the state of Maranhão. It is operated by the Comando da Aeronáutica (Brazil’s Air Force). Due to its geographical position, the Alcântara Launch Center, which’s construction began in 1982, has a significant advantage in launching geosynchronous satellites, an attribute shared by the French Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG). The first launch occurred on February 21, 1990, when the sounding rocket Sonda 2 was launched.

The 2003 Alcântara VLS accident was an accident involving a Brazilian Space Agency VLS-1 launch vehicle, which was intended to have launched two satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The rocket exploded on its launch pad at the Alcântara Launch Center, killing twenty-one people. This was the third attempt by the Brazilian Space Agency to launch the VLS rocket into outer space.

On August 22, 2003, an inadvertent propellant ignition destroyed the launch vehicle as it stood on its launch pad at the Alcântara Launch Center in the state of Maranhão in northern Brazil. Twenty-one people, standing on the launch pad, died when one of the rocket’s four first stage motors ignited accidentally. The explosion caused a fire in the nearby jungle brush, and produced a large cloud of smoke that was visible from far away.

The explosion levelled the rocket’s launch pad, reducing a 10-story high structure to a pile of twisted metal. The rocket had been scheduled to launch in just a few days and had two satellites on board when the explosion occurred. After the explosion, the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) was criticized for using solid-fuel rockets, which are easier to build and ignite than liquid-fuel rockets, but also dangerous because they lack throttle controls and emergency shut-offs. The incident has caused a significant delay to the Brazilian space program because of government inquiries as well as the fact that many scientists and engineers who worked on the program were killed when the rocket exploded. An investigation by the Brazilian Government after the explosion found “dangerous build-ups of volatile gases, deterioration of sensors and electromagnetic interference” at the launch site.

The Satélite de Coleta de Dados

The first Data-Collecting Satellite or Satélite de Coleta de Dados, sometimes referred to as the SCD-1, was launched on February 9, 1993. SCD-1, the first satellite developed entirely in Brazil, weighs approximately one hundred and ten kilograms and goes around the Earth every one hundred minutes on a nearly circular orbit at an altitude of about seven hundred and sixty kilometres. The SCD-1, an experimental communication satellite with an environmental mission, receiving data collected on the ground or at sea by hundreds of automatic data-collecting platforms, was designed, developed, built, and tested by Brazilian scientists, engineers, and technicians working at National Institute of Space Research and in Brazilian industries. Applications of the Satélite de Coleta de Dados include hydrology, meteorology, and monitoring of the environment in general.

The National Institute for Space Research or Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, is a civilian research unit of the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation located in the city of São José dos Campos, whose main goals are fostering scientific research and technological applications and qualifying personnel in the fields of space and atmospheric sciences, space engineering, and space technology.

The Brazilian Department of Science and Aerospace Technology or Departamento de Ciência e Tecnologia Aeroespacial, is the national military research centre for aviation and space flight. Subordinated to the Brazilian Air Force (FAB), it coordinates all technical and scientific activities related to the aerospace sector in which there are interests by the Ministry of Defence. It was established in 1953. It currently employs several thousand civilian and military personnel.

It was made to be launched with a Brazilian rocket in 1989. Once it was officially recognized that the rocket could not be completed until many years later, SCD-1, after undergoing minor adaptations, was finally launched with a Pegasus rocket (an air-launched rocket developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation). The rocket was launched from a B-52 airplane while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) and Marcos Pontes

The Agência Espacial Brasileira (AEB) or Brazilian Space Agency is the civilian authority in Brazil responsible for the country’s space program. It operates a spaceport at Alcântara, and a rocket launch site at the Barreira do Inferno Launch Center (created in 1965 and located in the city of Parnamirim, near Natal, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, the Barreira do Inferno Launch Center provides tracking support for launches from the Alcântara Launch Center and Guiana Space Centre). The agency has given Brazil a role in outer space in South America and made Brazil a former partner for cooperation in the International Space Station. Previously, the Brazilian space program had been under the control of the Brazilian military; the program was transferred into civilian control on February 10, 1994. Brazil’s President Itamar Franco signed a bill on February 10, 1994, creating the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB). It suffered a major setback in 2003, when a rocket explosion killed twenty-one technicians. Brazil successfully launched its first rocket into space on October 23, 2004 from the Alcântara Launch Center; it was a VSB-30 launched on a sub-orbital mission. Several other successful launches have followed.

On March 30, 2006, Marcos Cesar Pontes (born March 11, 1963) became the first Brazilian and the first native Portuguese-speaking person to go into space aboard Soyuz TMA-8, where he stayed on the International Space Station for a week. During his trip, Pontes carried out eight experiments selected by the Brazilian Space Agency. He landed in Kazakhstan on April 8, 2006, with the crew of Expedition 12. He is the only Brazilian to have completed the NASA astronaut training program, although he switched to training in Russia after NASA’s Space Shuttle program encountered problems.

The Brazilian Space Agency has pursued a policy of joint technological development with more advanced space programs. Initially, it relied heavily on the United States of America, but after meeting difficulties from them on technological transfers, Brazil has branched out, working with other nations, including China, India, Russia, and Ukraine.