Image: Soldier Near Alcantara
A Brazilian soldier watches as technicians inspect what's left of the Alcantara launch pad after a rocket explosion in August.
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updated 10/20/2003 9:47:26 AM ET 2003-10-20T13:47:26

Ever since John F. Kennedy promised in 1961 to put an American on the moon, Brazil has labored to join the elite club of nations that have mastered the technology to send rockets bearing satellites hurtling into space. That dream now lies buried under the blackened wreckage of an eight-story launch pad that collapsed in a massive explosion at Brazil’s equatorial rocket launching site carved from a remote coastal rainforest.

InsertArt(2046465)TWENTY-ONE ENGINEERS and technicians died when the $6 million rocket burst into flames Aug. 22 because of a mysterious booster engine malfunction, dealing Latin America’s only space program a setback of at least four years, if not more.

Though it was Brazil’s third failure since 1997 to send a rocket into space with satellites aboard, the previous rocket accidents didn’t cause any deaths or injuries.

This time, the country lost incalculable brain power with the deaths of some of the space program’s most seasoned workers as they made final launch preparations.

“Brazil’s space program lost its professional elite,” said physicist Francisco Conde, who leads the Brazilian union representing space program workers. “Eighteen of the 21 victims had more than 20 years of experience.”

LONGSTANDING PROBLEMS

While President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva promised to continue the program in the name of Brazilian pride and to honor the dead, Conde and others said South America’s largest country will be hard-pressed to recoup lost ground. Longstanding problems of underfunding have traditionally made it difficult to attract qualified scientists and technicians.

Even before the explosion, Conde said, the program’s best and brightest “have either left the program or never joined because they earn more working for the private sector.” Top-level Brazilian space program engineers earn about $1,140 monthly, but can easily make double that working in the private sector.

After the explosion, Brazil’s government said the program’s goal of sending a low-level satellite into orbit could be delayed by three to four years. But experts said the setback could last longer.

“This is Brazil’s equivalent of NASA’s Columbia disaster,” said Lon Rains, editor of Space News, a weekly newspaper for space program professionals.

Besides the problem replacing the workers lost in the accident, he said, authorities must figure out what went wrong with the rocket and put together a plan to avoid a similar catastrophe.

Rebuilding it “will take a lot of money and a lot of time,” Rains said.

MODEST PROGRAM

Brazil’s space program is extremely modest by international standards, and far behind efforts by other developing countries, such as India. The Brazilian program gets about $30 million a year, compared to India’s annual space budget program of $300 million.

Although India also spends money on military space technology while Brazil is focusing only on launching satellites, the Indians “are decades ahead of Brazil in terms of investment and critical mass,” said Luis Bitencourt, Brazil project director at the Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars in Washington.

Days after the accident, a 2002 review of the space program was made public. It alleges the program lacked qualified personnel — jeopardizing the reliability and safety of the launch center.

The report, prepared by a Brazilian air force colonel, was presented at the Superior War College and published by the respected weekly news magazine Carta Capital.

It also suggested that basic maintenance could be a problem at Alcantara, which has always been considered a near-ideal launch site because of its location, just 2.3 degrees south of the equator.

Because of the region’s year-round hot, humid weather and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, equipment — such as the launch pad, antennas and radar — are subject to deterioration, the report said.

ALCANTARA’S ADVANTAGE

But Alcantara’s big advantage as a launch site remains firmly intact despite the explosion. Because the earth’s rotation is faster at the equator, rockets can be launched into space using less fuel but with heavier payloads.

Alcantara-based rockets can be sent into space using 13 percent less fuel than launches at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and 31 percent less than from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Government officials have not commented in detail about how they intend to replace the scientists and technicians who died at the Alcantara explosion, but deny the accident happened because Brazil doesn’t invest enough money in its space program.

“It is not fair to say that the accident at Alcantara was due to a lack of funds,” Defense Minister Jose Viegas said.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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