Brazil’s Ambitious Space Program Built on Rickety Foundation

The rising global power of Brazil has ambitious plans to become self-sufficient in launcher and space technology, although its efforts are threatened by a shortage of funding and trained personnel. In order to reach its goals, the nation has forged partnerships with Russia, Ukraine, China and other nations.

The core of Brazil’s move toward launcher independence lies with two rockets: Cyclone-4 and the Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS-1). The Cyclone-4 is an updated version of the Soviet-era Cyclone-3 booster that is being developed by Ukraine. It has been improved upon from its predecessor by adding a more powerful third stage with a new rocket engine, a fairing derived from the Ariane 4, and an improved control system.

Ukraine's Cyclone-4 rocket

The rocket will lift off from a new launch complex at the Alcantara spaceport, which is located not far from the equator. The gives the location an advantage for communication satellites. The Cyclone-4 will be able to send payloads of up to 5,300 kg  (11,684 lbs.) into low Earth orbit and up to 1,800 kg (3,968 lbs.) into geo-transfer orbit.

The date of the first launch has slipped by years as Brazil and Ukraine have struggled to meet financial commitments. There were also been challenges in finding a suitable site for the new launch complex, which is now under construction. Until recently, the inaugural launch had been planned for late 2012; however, recent reports indicate that date will slip into 2013 or 2014.

Meanwhile, Brazil has revived its stalled Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS-1) project, which had been put on hold in 2003 after a pad explosion killed 21 people. The 3-stage solid fuel booster is designed to loft 380 kg (830 lb.) payloads into low Earth orbit.

Last month, Brazil signed an agreement with Russia to cooperate on completing the VLS-1 project using Russian technology. A Russian liquid stage would be added as the upper stage of the rocket. The pact was finalized in Moscow by Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) President Marco Antonio Raupp and Brazilian Vice-President Michel Temer.

“This document reflects the desire of both countries to deepen the existing cooperation in the area of ​​the Department of Aerospace Science and Technology (DCTA) in conjunction with several companies and institutes linked to the Russian Space Agency,” Raupp said in a press release. “The intention now is to deepen this cooperation in order, in a second phase, under a joint program of development of small launchers.”

The Russians will also assist Brazil with the development of weather and communication satellites. Brazil has been cooperating with other nations on satellite development as well; it has had a joint program with China since the 1980s under which it has developed and launched three environmental monitoring satellites, with two more in the works. The collaboration has made Brazil the largest distributor of satellite images in the world.

Brazil’s ambitious space agenda is threatened by a shortage of funding and trained workers, problems that were discussed during a recent public hearing conducted by the House of Representatives. According to an AEB account of the session:

The main issues were: the lack of skilled labor that affects the industry as well as replacing those who are about to retire, insufficient budget and the need for the space program to become, in fact, a state program. The AEB president presented a graph that shows a continuing decline in the number of workers. According to Raupp, today the country has a workforce of approximately 3,000 employees, while space programs such as India, Europe and the United States have respectively 16 thousand, 28 thousand and 70 thousand professionals.

According to the president of SindCT, the situation may get even worse. “Unattractive salaries, lack of public tenders for the renewal of the framework, discontinuation of actions generate motivation and low self-esteem among professionals and are the causes of this deficit,” said Fernando Moraes. He said if nothing is changed, the PEB is at risk, since half of those currently working are about to retire. The director general of DCTA, Ailton Pohlmann, said that by 2020, all professionals who today work in the PEB, will be out of the Brazilian Space Program.

The program budget, another issue listed was explained by the director of INPE in a chart showing the resources allocated to the PEB since 1980. During 13 years (1990-2003), the contingencies were low for the space, which he said gave delays of projects and actions. Only in 2003, Lula’s government, there was a return on investment. The amount, however, is insufficient. Gilberto Camara said that Brazil invests currently about $ 200 million in its program, while countries like India, China and Russia invest at least four times.

Raupp, who took over as AEB president in March, is working on a new space plan that would include additional funding and greater participation from industry and universities. “This document entitled ‘Urgent Brazil Space,’ has to be taken seriously. The country has to have this attitude,” Raupp said.

The new administrator is also pursuing an effort to get the private sector more involved in the nation’s space program, which has been primarily government led. According to Agency Brazil:

The idea is that large companies participate in the process classified as integrators, who would be responsible for the project contracted by the government and could subcontract smaller companies to manufacture components and parts.

According to the President of AEB, we must better articulate the various members of the system, which is the agency itself, such as planning and coordinating agency, the executing agencies (National Institute for Space Research – INPE and the Aerospace Technical Center – CTA) and contractors for the development of space programs or subsystems of launch vehicles.

To improve the performance of the executors of PNAE and, consequently, catch up that Brazil suffers in this area, Raupp stressed the need to stimulate the development of industry for the production of space components, due to the high value-added products based on these embedded technology. “The development of the industry with innovation, competitive, is one of the objectives of the policy [space],” he said.

The emphasis on private sector participation does not imply, however, privatization of the space agency or CTA, Raupp guaranteed. The MCT and AEB will propose expanding the role of private companies in PNAE in building satellites and in providing services. According to Raupp, this measure will solve, in large part, the question of allocation of human resources for the program to the extent that the private sector will be responsible for hiring people to operate the space systems or develop new systems.

It will be interesting to see how everything develops in Brazil. There are many obstacle ahead for AEB, but if it can navigate them, the nation could vaunt into the upper ranks of space-faring nations by the end of the 2010s.