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Latin America from space
The interest in, and capabilities of, Latin American nations in spaceflight has been growing in recent years. (credit: NASA)

Latin America’s space programs in 2012


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In 2008, I wrote a report for my organization, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, titled “Space Technology Comes to Latin America: Part of the Hemisphere’s Road to Autonomy.” In the article, I discussed the space programs currently being carried out by a number of Latin American states, including Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela. I also highlighted how extra-hemispheric powers, such as China and Russia, as well as some European states, were helping Latin American countries pursue their space dreams.

While these states are still (light) years from being space competitors to the US, Russia, Europe, or China, it is clear that Latin America’s space interests and ambitions are here to stay.

Fast forward to 2012, when NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover scored a major achievement by successfully landing in Gale Crater on August 6. This was an amazing accomplishment for NASA, but it was also source of pride for Peru, as a native of the Andean nation, Melissa Soriano, works in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The role of Soriano can be added to other recent developments that exemplify how Latin American governments and their citizens are becoming increasingly more interested in space. While these states are still (light) years from being space competitors to the US, Russia, Europe, or China, it is clear that Latin America’s space interests and ambitions are here to stay.

Latin American astronauts

Besides Latin American technicians working for NASA, such as the aforementioned Soriano, there is a small but growing number of Latin American astronauts who have gone to space. For example, the Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez holds the distinction of being the first Latin American to fly in space via the Soyuz 38 spaceship in 1980, which was launched by the Soviet Union.

Other Latin cosmonauts include the Mexican Rodolfo Neri Vela, who participated in STS-61-B in 1985; Franklin Chang-Diaz, an American of Costa Rican descent; and Ellen Ochoa, the first female Hispanic astronaut. In recent years there have also been a number of other “firsts.” For example, Carlos Noriega became the first Peruvian-born astronaut, who flew in 1997’s STS-84. Noriega’s accomplishments are a source of pride for Peru as exemplified by a biography in a Peruvian radio website that explains that “he is an American citizen […] but his sentiments are Peruvian. He displays the red and white colors of our national flag.” Years later, Joseph Acaba became the first individual of Puerto Rican descent to fly to space onboard STS-119 in 2009.

Space research as a regional integration mechanism

An important development that confirms Latin America’s space aspirations occurred during a meeting of the defense ministers of the Union of South American Nations (Union the Naciones Suramericanas – UNASUR) that took place in Lima in November 2011. One of the agreements that came out of the summit was that the representatives collectively deemed it a priority to create a South American space agency. Argentine defense minister Arturo Pucelli declared that collaboration through UNASUR would reduce costs among participating nations, and allow them to share information and carry out multinational projects such as placing satellites in orbit. Before the meeting, the Argentine official had stated that, “the idea of a space agency is not an imitation of Europe but rather for our defense, [where] we will have much more to defend and control from space.”

International aid

A critical issue for the future of Latin America’s space programs is international aid, which comes from either foreign governments or private companies that already possess space technology and are willing to provide it to Latin American states for the right price. For example, Chile successfully deployed a satellite called FASAT-Charlie on December 2011, which is expected to operate until 2018. The satellite can take 2D and 3D photographs of Chilean territory with a particular emphasis on the country’s topography, such as glaciers and volcanoes. The satellite was built as a joint partnership between the Chilean Air Force and the UK’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.

Besides private companies, governments are also providing Latin American states with aid to pursue their space dreams. For example, Peru is preparing its second satellite, known as “Chasqui II,” which Lima aims to launch by 2014. Peru’s Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria (National Engineering University) and the renowned Russian South West State University are reportedly collaborating on the project; once it is ready, Russia will launch it. The satellite will monitor deforestation from natural disasters and study Peru’s ocean territory out to 200 miles. Moscow and Lima have a long history of partnerships, not just on space exploration but also on other ventures, such as Peru being a traditional importer of Russian military equipment like helicopters.

One of the agreements that came out of the November 2011 summit was that the representatives collectively deemed it a priority to create a South American space agency.

Furthermore, China has provided aid to a number of South American states with their space-related plans. For example, Venezuela’s Venesat 1, also known as “Simon Bolivar,” was successfully launched from the Xichang Space Centre in China on October 2008. Furthermore, this past June, China Daily published an article announcing a new Sino-Venezuelan cooperation to launch a second Venezuelan satellite this year. The second satellite will be known as “Miranda” and will help monitor natural phenomena such as earthquakes and flooding, in addition to manmade issues like illegal mining. The Chinese newspaper argued that, “by successfully putting the satellite into orbit, Venezuela has taken a step toward technological independence, entering into stiff competition with 62 other countries that are active in space.” It is unsurprising that Beijing is praising Caracas’ attempts at independence as greater inter-state cooperation does not occur in a geopolitical vacuum. Since Hugo Chavez’s election to the presidency, Venezuela has sought new allies, such as China and Russia, instead of maintaining ties with Washington. In fact, Beijing and Caracas have already signed deals worth billions of dollars for oil exploration. Hence, greater space-related relations can be regarded as another way to improve Beijing-Caracas relations.

In addition, China also began developing a communications satellite in conjunction with Bolivia in 2011. The satellite, known as Tupac Katari, is scheduled to be completed by 2013–2014 and will be built between Bolivia’s state-run agency and the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC). “It [will] benefit Bolivia in areas such as education, medicine and communication,” Bolivia's deputy science and technology minister Pedro Crespo explained. Besides the satellite, reports appeared this past July that up to 74 Bolivian space scientists will be trained in China in order to be ready for the satellite’s launch. The satellite will cost around $300 million. “About $45 million would come from the Bolivian government and the other $250 million comes through a loan from China's Development Bank,” the Chinese Global Times reported.

A critical factor for Latin America’s space aspirations is that several space-states, such as the US and China, are actively helping regional states with their domestic programs.

Finally, it is important to note that NASA has shown interest in improving cooperation with Latin America. Back in 2009, NASA provided technological aid to Argentina with its SAC-D satellite, which was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Furthermore, on September 2010, the agency hosted a revealing symposium about its relationship with Latin America. According to a NASA press release:

The participants discussed some of NASA's ongoing work in Latin America, including the NASA and U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Regional Visualization and Monitoring System. The satellite system provides information from Earth observations to help local decision makers respond to natural disasters, and environmental threats, such as air pollution and fires.

The document also highlighted how NASA has signed more than 30 agreements with 20 Latin American countries. The issues covered by said agreements include Earth and space science as well as space-related education themes.

Brazil: still Latin America’s space poster child

While Bolivia’s, Chile’s, and Peru’s accomplishments and future plans are significant, Brazil, with its growing economy, remains the major case study of a government pushing its own domestic space program. The giant South American nation has the necessary financial resources to undertake such projects. For example, Brasilia has stated its interest in placing a satellite in orbit by 2014 for civilian and defense purposes. According to reports, the construction, launch, and control of the satellite will cost close to 700 million reales ($390 million USD). The Brazilian ministry of defense is particularly interested in a homemade satellite as it will facilitate better communication across defense systems, such as between border troops and naval units, including submarines. Another positive aspect of the satellite will be that it will allow the Brazilian air force to better monitor the country’s air space.

A 2010 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Latin America’s space programs pays particular attention to Brazil’s space ambitions and puts them in a geopolitical context. The report explains that:

Civil space exploration is still a requirement for achieving great power status. This lesson has not been lost on Brazil […] The need for [independent access to space] is something that Brazil has made a priority, as evidenced by the focus on space in its 2008 National Defense Strategy report. Brazil not only wants to develop greater launch capacity, but it also wants to build satellites for earth observation and enhanced communication capacity. [ CSIS report, P. 5]

Sadly, just like other countries with emerging space programs, Brazil has suffered its share of fatalities in the name of space exploration. In August 2003, an explosion at a VLS-3 rocket in the Alcantara Launch Center killed 21 people, mostly civilian technicians, and destroyed two research satellites.

Conclusions

While the space programs of several Latin American states have existed for some time, they are still in their most primitive stages as compared to “Global North” countries like the US, Europe, and Russia. Certainly, it should be noted that Latin American states (with Brazil as the lone exception) will not be capable of launching their own manned satellites or other spacecraft anytime in the near future, which, as CSIS argues, is a critical component to space independency. Nevertheless, there have been some significant advances in the past few years. The launch of home-built satellites by countries like Argentina and Venezuela (even with international aid) exemplifies that these countries possess a rudimentary knowledge that is only going to grow. The fact that we now see even more astronauts of Latin American origin, alongside the strong presence of Latin Americans in NASA’s pool of engineer experts, is a promising development.

Finally, a critical factor for Latin America’s space aspirations is that several space-states, such as the US and China, are actively helping regional states with their domestic programs. At one point in the future this may spark some debate, as Earth-bound geopolitical and security issues continue to spill over to space, particularly as governments currently characterized by anti-Washington sentiments, such as Caracas and La Paz, are receiving technological space-related aid from countries like China. In any case, while not yet a participant in the space race, it seems clear that Latin America as a whole is looking to the skies with ambitious eyes.


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