Will Alcântara Finally Stop Being the Spaceport of the Future?

Cyclone 4 launch pad under construction. (Credit: Alcantara Space)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Brazil’s decades-long effort to launch satellites from its underused Alcântara Launch Center could finally be bearing fruit.

On Monday, Brazil and the United States signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement that will allow American companies to launch orbital rockets from Alcântara.

“Upon entry into force, the Agreement will establish the technical safeguards to support U.S. space launches from Brazil while ensuring the proper handling of sensitive U.S. technology consistent with U.S. nonproliferation policy, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and U.S. export control laws and regulations,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

Located on the Atlantic Ocean about two degrees of the equator (closer than than Europe’s launch base in French Guiana), Alcântara is an ideal location from which to launch geosynchronous communications satellites.

Brazilian officials say that a number of established U.S. space companies — including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX — have expressed interesting in launching from the spaceport.

The opening of Alcântara comes at a time when the market for large geosynchronous satellites has shrunk. There is much more interest in smaller satellites that will operate in low- and medium Earth orbits, particularly for large constellations of spacecraft.

However, the equatorial orbit is not the only trajectory possible from Alcântara. And U.S. startup companies such as Vector and Microcosm focused on smaller satellites are also interested in flying from the center and have toured the facilities there, Brazilian officials have said.

For decades, Brazil’s attempts to develop Alcântara for orbital launches have come to naught. Thus far, the center has supported launches of sounding rockets, ballistic missiles, and Brazil’s home-ground VLS-1 small satellite launcher.

Two VSL-1 launches failed in flight. In August 2003, a VLS-1 booster killed 21 people after it exploded on the launch pad. The tragedy dealt a devastating setback to the program, which was eventually canceled.

VLS-1 was to have formed the basis of a family of boosters under the proposed Southern Cross program. However, that effort never got off the ground.

A decade-long effort to launch Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 booster from Alcântara fell apart in 2011 after numerous missed deadlines. Proposals to launch Russia’s Proton and Israel’s Shavit boosters likewise have come to nothing.

  • duheagle

    Good. More spaceports in friendly countries are always good things. Perhaps Alcantara will be the third spaceport from which SH-Starship flies.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Depending on your definition of a “friendly country” as US traditionally does not recognize friends in terms of spaceports and this one is actually a result of a bromance of two heavily right wing bonzos (Trump and Bolsonaro) which may end in a spectacular way.

    Who knows, maybe Duterte should develop a space facility too – but he might be more eager to offer it to China.

    Other thing is, there are many reasons why Brasilian space, and science/tech in general just can’t succeed.

  • duheagle

    You are correct that the presence of spaceports in a country has not traditionally influenced U.S. policy toward said country. That’s because, until quite recently, there were vanishingly few countries in the world that even had spaceports. U.S. foreign policy has also not been traditionally influenced by the presence or absence of unicorn sanctuaries in particular nation states. Go figure.

    As for the friendliness of Brazil toward the U.S., the two nations have had their ups and downs, but Brazil has not been actively hostile to the U.S. in living memory, though it has often been, at best, lukewarm. The recent ascension of Bolsonaro to the Brazilian Presidency bodes well for warmer relations between his nation and the U.S. as he seems the most pro-American Brazilian head of state since the leadership of the junta that overthrew Goulart in 1964.

    Brazil, like nearly all countries with a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian majority, has had an historically dodgy political culture that retains a fair amount of feudal, oligarchic baggage from earlier times. Such places tend to oscillate between “civilian,” – generally leftist – governments that are usually also comically corrupt, and military juntas that are also comically corrupt, at least after they’ve been in power awhile. Spain, Portugal, Greece, France and pretty much the entirety of the Americas south of the Rio Grande have displayed this pattern for two centuries or more. So have the Philippines for that matter – unsurprising as that nation is both heavily Catholic and was a long-time Spanish colony.

    I’m not at all clear about how you see the U.S.-Brazilian relationship – or the Trump-Bolsonaro relationship if you prefer – ending “in a spectacular way.” Never say never about places with chronically unstable politics, I suppose, but things seem to be moving in a decidedly more positive direction under Bolsonaro than they were under his leftist and corrupt predecessor.

    As for the degree to which Trump and Bolsonaro are men of the right, I’d have to say that, based on what little I’ve read about the latter, he seems far more “right-wing,” even by European standards – and I seem to recall you are some species of European – than Mr. Trump. Trump is a fairly recent convert even to the Republican Party never mind actual American-style conservatism – which he has only partially embraced.

    Bolsonaro has spoken favorably of a number of past juntas in his own and other countries of the region. But he also seems to respect electoral institutions, at least far more so than is typical of Latin American leaders.

    It’s probably too early to say with any certitude, but perhaps Bolsonaro is the beginning of a damping down of Brazil’s long-time alternation of corrupt civilian and hard-line military rule. Bolsonaro makes certain noises like a junta generalissimo, but is not an active-duty military man and was elected to office. Brazil, frankly, could do a lot worse than Bolsonaro followed by more like him – and frequently has.

    Something in addition to the aforementioned “spectacular way” that is also unclear is your stated notion that “Brasilian space, and science/tech in general just can’t succeed.” With respect to aerospace, Embraer has succeeded quite nicely in the regional airliner and business jet markets. Rocketry and space have been less successful in Brazil, but I fail to see any intrinsic barriers to eventual Brazilian success there too. Please, if you have the time, explain to us all why you see Brazil as a perpetual outsider anent space technology and/or sci-tech in general.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    To be very brief here re the last point: long-time space enthusiasts read about more than one launch site in Brazil, with Alcantara

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Needed to elaborate due to too quick save.