Disaster jolts Brazil's space program

Brazil reaffirmed its commitment to space following the death of 21 scientists Friday.

Officials with Brazil's fledgling space agency vowed to continue their quest to be the first Latin American nation to put a satellite in space, even as cleanup began on the wreckage from the country's third rocket disaster in six years.

Questions are being asked about the future of the program after a rocket exploded at the Alcantara Launch Center near the equator early on Friday afternoon, killing 21 people. Officials believe a fire near the solid-fuel boosters caused the $6 million VLS-1 rocket to erupt in a huge fireball, though a full probe could take 30 days.

The accident was a blow to Brazil's aerospace industry, and with the country facing its tightest budgetary restrictions in a decade, it could force the government to take another look at its investment in the space race.

New Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reaffirmed Brazil's commitment to having "its own space technology." But Mr. da Silva came to office focusing more on resolving the country's social problems than on technological advances.

In 2001, Brazil spent 1.4 percent of its GDP on technology, roughly half that of developed nations like Sweden or Japan, but still a significant amount for a nation where 13 percent cannot read or write and where crime, malnutrition, and housing are still pressing problems.

So after taking office on Jan. 1, one of da Silva's first - and most popular - decisions was to postpone the purchase of Air Force fighter jets and channel the planned $700 million expenditure into Zero Hunger, a campaign designed to eradicate malnutrition within four years.

That move delighted many supporters, but it was not a hugely popular decision with the military, many of whom are anxious at seeing further cuts.

The head of the Brazilian Space Agency, Luiz Bevilacqua, told reporters on Friday that Brazil needs more investment in space technology, not less, and he warned that if authorities had spent more over the past few years, Friday's accident could have been avoided.

"This launch and the previous two could have been successful," he said in the capital, Brasilia, where he was discussing future projects with Ukrainian officials. "It is undeniable that space technology is vital to Brazil. We either get this down ourselves and say we can to it alone, or we are going to continue to depend on the good will of other countries to get information from space, or we buy it from these other countries for a fortune."

The unmanned rocket was being prepared to carry two satellites into space Monday. All those who perished were scientists working at the site.

The failure to get the VLS-1 rocket into space was another major disappointment to Mr. Bevilacqua.

In 1997, the first VLS rocket exploded just 65 seconds after takeoff when engineers detected a fault in the propulsion system. Two years later, scientists used remote-control devices to destroy the second VLS rocket three minutes after takeoff after finding defects in the motors.

In the longer term, Friday's accident could also threaten Brazil's ambitious plan to turn Alcantara into one of the world's most sought after launch sites.

Because the remote jungle peninsula is just 2 degrees from the equator, rockets launched there can carry larger payloads and need significantly less fuel to reach orbit - 13 percent less than those launched from Cape Canaveral, for example - because they take greater advantage of the Earth's centrifugal forces. Officials hoped such savings would convince countries to launch their satellites from Brazil.

In return, Brazil hoped to reap the benefits by learning the cutting-edge technology that would eventually help them create their own satellite industry. Neighboring French Guiana has become a favorite launch site of European and Russian space programs.

Brazil's program, however, was controversial from the start. Hundreds of families were evicted from their homes to make way for the construction of a brand-new facility.

Moreover, the government's plans to construct its own domestic satellite program were dealt a big setback when the United States refused to share its own rocket-launching technology.

Still, Brazil remains committed to carrying on the work.

"I pay homage to the workers who gave their lives in the name of the development of Brazil," Defense Minister Jose Viegas told reporters. "We will continue the [space] program so that they did not die in vain."

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