updated 3/16/2004 9:35:33 PM ET 2004-03-17T02:35:33

Poor funding and lax management contributed to the accidental explosion of a rocket that killed 21 engineers and technicians three days before launch last year, a report on the disaster said Tuesday.

The report on the disaster investigation confirmed that an electrical flaw triggered one of the VLS-1 VO3 rocket's four solid fuel boosters during final preparations at the remote seaside launch pad. Sabotage was ruled out.

The government-appointed investigation team said it could not determine the nature of the electrical problem and that further investigation is under way.

The 130-page report painted a damning picture of Brazil's young space program and said decisions by government managers long before the Aug. 22 accident led to a breakdown in safety procedures, routine maintenance and training.

Problems at the Alcantara Launch Center, in northeastern Brazil, included dangerous buildups of volatile gases, deterioration of sensors and electromagnetic interference -- all of which posed serious safety hazards, the report said. Space center employees charged with maintaining quality control were overworked, it said.

"We observed a lack of formal, detailed risk management, especially in the conduct of operations involving preparations for launch," the report said.

After releasing the report, Defense Minister Jose Viegas ordered the Air Force, which oversees the space program, to put in place solutions recommended in the report.

"We can no longer run the kind of risks we have," Viegas said.

Viegas said the space program -- Latin America's first -- needs $100 million to be revamped. He hopes it will be capable of launching a rocket capable of deploying satellites by 2006 -- at the end of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's first term.

Brazil's space program has yet to launch a satellite successfully and is modest by international standards. The Brazilian program gets about $30 million a year, compared to India's annual space budget of $300 million.

Families of those who died in the accident will hold the government to making the improvements, said Jose Oliveira, president of an association representing the relatives.

"The issue now is whether the government will accept these recommendations," said Oliveira, who served on the investigative commission. "We are guardedly optimistic that the government will do so."

Because of poor communications, some space program workers did not know that the rocket's igniters had been installed before the day of the accident -- though the report did not say whether that lack of knowledge played a role in the explosion.

The program's financial woes led to low pay, prompting many experienced workers to leave for better jobs in the private sector, the investigation found. It said electrical cables, some used to carry power from a control bunker to the booster rocket, did not have sufficient insulation and were poorly maintained.

Engineers and technicians interviewed by investigators complained about being forced to use obsolete equipment and technical manuals that had not been translated into Portuguese. Even the space station's weather radar was not working the day of the accident.

Investigators also said there were not enough security measures in place to keep personnel away from the rocket when dangerous work was being performed.

The accident was the third failure for Brazil's space program, but it was the first in which anyone died. In 1997, a rocket launched from Alcantara crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after liftoff. In 1999, officials destroyed a rocket after it veered off course three minutes after takeoff.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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