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Alcântara explosion aftermath
The aftermath of an August 2003 explosion of a VLS rocket at Baazil’s Alcântara launch site, which killed 21 people. (credit: Agência Brasil, via Wikipedia)

Brazil in space


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The much-derided James Bond movie Moonraker does have its good moments. One of them occurs about two thirds of the way through the film when Bond discovers that the homicidal billionaire with his own space shuttle fleet has built a series of underground launch pads deep in the Brazilian rain forest. Ironically, in the movie, Brazil had a space program, they just didn’t know about it.

The report was apparently prompted by a Brazilian decision to embark “on an ambitious aerospace program intended to make it self-sufficient in space technology and capable of producing, launching, and maintaining a satellite in space.”

In reality, Brazil has long had its own on-again, off-again space program, periodically leading to articles claiming that the country is about to make a new push to develop its indigenous capabilities. After awhile nothing happens, and then nothing continues to happen, and eventually most people forget that Brazil has or had a space program. Evidence of this—and a more substantial link between espionage and secretive launch bases—can be found in a newly-declassified November 1982 CIA report on Brazil’s space program, which CIA analysts believed was about to make a major next step with the development of Brazil’s own indigenous space launch vehicle.

The report, simply titled “Brazilian Space Launch Vehicle Program,” was produced by the National Photographic Interpretation Center, which at the time was run by the CIA and colloquially referred to as NPIC, or “enpic.” NPIC was responsible for analyzing satellite and aircraft reconnaissance photography and producing assessments of what they saw. Although the report was only 14 pages long, it was intended to be a comprehensive overview of everything from industrial facilities to launch ranges to the launch vehicles themselves. By this time NPIC analysts were encouraged to branch beyond using only imagery to produce their assessments, and thus the NPIC report references several open source articles about Brazil’s efforts, producing a more complete view of the country’s space projects. There is no evidence that the US intelligence community looked at Brazil’s program with any alarm, however.

The report was apparently prompted by a Brazilian decision to embark “on an ambitious aerospace program intended to make it self-sufficient in space technology and capable of producing, launching, and maintaining a satellite in space.” The country had started a number of plans and programs expanding existing facilities and constructing new test and launch facilities, according to the report. Brazil’s plans at the time were to launch “a new-generation sounding rocket (Sonda IV) by 1983 and the launch of a four-stage space launch vehicle (SLV) by 1988.”

Brazil’s space program began in 1961 and resulted in the successful development of the Sonda I, II and III sounding rockets, primarily used for meteorological research. The Sonda III was capable of transporting a 50-kilogram payload to 500 kilometers altitude. The Sonda IV was planned to be capable of launching 300 kilograms to 1,000 kilometers. All were solid propellant rockets.

The proposed space launch vehicle was to have four stages and able to launch a 120-kilogram satellite to a 500–800 kilometer orbit. Its first launch was scheduled for 1988 and would be followed by three additional launches over the next five years, although that schedule had already slipped. The CIA predicted that the first stage would consist of a cluster of four to five Sonda IV rockets, with the second and third stages made of other Sonda rockets. This was, in fact, similar to the approach taken by Iraq in developing its space launch vehicle in the late 1980s, although Iraq used clustered liquid-fueled rockets. (See: “Saddam’s space program,” The Space Review, October 26, 2009.)

Initially, Brazil had hoped to jointly develop a liquid-fueled launch vehicle with France, but negotiations with the French broke down over technology transfer issues. Brazil had to go it alone.

Brazil’s launch area was the Barreira do Inferno Rocket Range on the Atlantic Coast. It opened in 1965 and the 1982 report stated that over 2,000 domestic and foreign-built rockets had been launched from there. These included not only the Sondas, but also the Nike-Ajax, Nike-Cajun, Nike-Iroquois, Javelin, Aerobee, and the Black Brant IV.

Because Alcântara is less than three degrees from the equator, it benefits from the Earth’s rotation compared to sites farther away. But geography is not destiny when it comes to space launches.

The Brazilian government had publicly stated that the launch range was insufficient for the space launch vehicle and had therefore acquired a 500-square-kilometer area near Sao Luis Bay. This was named the Alcântara Space Launch Facility and plans were for it to become operational in 1988. American reconnaissance satellites had not spotted any construction at the site by the time the report was written.

That was nearly 30 years ago.

The first launch at Alcântara did not take place until 1990, when the Brazilians fired a Sonda II sounding rocket. As the NPIC analysts predicted, the space launch vehicle—which the Brazilians named the Veículo Lançador de Satélites, or VLS—slipped its schedule. Limited tests of the first stage took place in 1985 and 1989. But the first full-scale test did not take place until December 1997—nine years later than planned—and ended in failure. A second launch took place in December 1999 and also failed.

But the major setback occurred just days before the third test launch scheduled for August 2003. The VLS rocket exploded on the pad, killing 21 people. Although the VLS is still supposedly an active program, after nearly nine years with no launch attempts it is difficult to believe that it is going to make any progress.

Late last year Brazil and Ukraine announced that a joint venture that had been initiated in 2003 was finally resuming. The plan is to launch a Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rocket from Alcântara in 2013. Because Alcântara is less than three degrees from the equator, it benefits from the Earth’s rotation compared to sites farther away. But geography is not destiny when it comes to space launches. If there is a CIA intelligence analyst responsible for keeping tabs on Brazil’s space program today, he probably has a lot of time on his hands.


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