Alcântara: The Spaceport of the Future?

Charles de Gaulle -- not one of Brazil's biggest fans.

“Brazil is the country of the future…and always will be.”

So wryly observed Charles de Gaulle decades ago, marveling at how South America’s largest country, blessed with enormous resources and an industrious population, was forever failing to live up to enormous potential.

Brazil seems to be on the verge of ending that cycle. Economic and political reforms of the past decade have put the nation firmly on the path to becoming a regional and global power. During the next five years, Brazil will shine on the global stage as it hosts two of the world’s greatest sporting events, the Summer Olympics and the soccer World Cup.

And yet amid the optimism, the nation’s future is clouded by a lack of trained workers, a critical shortage of investments in key areas, and an often disorganized government. Nowhere are these shortcomings more apparent than in the nation’s space program and, in particular, its efforts to turn its sleepy Alcântara Launch Center into a world-class spaceport.

If Brazil can achieve its space goals over the next decade, Alcântara could become one of the busiest launch sites in the world, and one of the most lucrative. Located just two degrees from the equator, the spaceport is ideal for launching geosynchronous orbit communications satellites.

However, before it can join the ranks of the world’s space powers, Brazil will have to greatly expand its small and fragmented space program, train a new generation of engineers and technicians, and successfully execute on a series of projects with foreign nations. And it will need to spend money—lots of money.

The Ukrainian connection

Ukraine's Cyclone rocket

The Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, or CLA, in Portuguese) currently has a severe shortage of one essential thing: rockets. The nation has sounding rockets, but nothing that can send a payload into orbit. Brazil is remedying this shortfall by undertaking cooperative programs with Ukraine and Russia to build six rockets that could launch everything from small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) to heavy geosynchronous communications satellites.

The Ukrainian joint venture involves launching the Cyclone-4 rocket from a new launch site in Alcântara. The booster is an upgraded version of a Soviet-era Cyclone-3 rocket that was built in the Ukraine. It will be capable of lofting payloads weighing 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) into LEO and 1,700 kilograms (3,700 pounds) to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

The effort, which is being overseen by the Alcântara Cyclone Space joint venture, has seen many delays over the years as the global economic crisis created funding problems. In addition, Brazil had to identify a launch site that did not impinge upon the lands of native peoples.

Ukrainian Space Agency head Yuriy Alekseyev said recently that more funding is required to complete the project. “Today around $280 million has been spent and around $260 million more will be required. Unfortunately, Brazil has invested $50 million more in the project compared to Ukraine,” he said.

The wisdom of continuing the project is questioned by some critics in Brazil, who say the billion dollar effort is too expensive and blame Ukraine for failing to live up to its financial commitments. Disagreement over continuing the project is reported to be one of the reasons that Gilberto Câmara, head of the National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, INPE), announced that he would be stepping down two years before the end of his term.

“Câmara has been a leading critic of the Brazil-Ukraine project, which competes for resources with satellite program developed by INPE. It is estimated that Brazil still need to put $600 million in the partnership,” according to the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

When the rocket will make its inaugural flight is uncertain. Officially, the date still remains 2012. However, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was recently quoted as saying that partners are looking to complete a new launch complex at Alcântara by 2014.

“Last month, however, a space agency mission led by Raupp visited Ukraine and concluded that the design of the Cyclone-4 is ‘60% to 70% ready,’” Falha de Sao Paulo reports.

The Russo-Brazilian Southern Cross family of rockets. (Credit: CLA)

The Russian angle

Brazil’s collaboration with Russia, known as Southern Cross, began back in 2005. It is a much more ambitious effort than the Cyclone-4 program, involving the creation of a family rockets capable of lifting payloads of 400 kilograms to four tons into orbit.

The program involves:  the Russian space agency, Roscosmos; the Brazilian Space Agency (Agência Espacial Brasileira, or AEB); and the General-Command for Aerospace Technology (Comando-Geral de Tecnologia Aerospacial, or CTA), which is the national military research center for spaceflight and aviation.

The rockets in the Southern Cross family are named:

  • Alpha (light)
  • Beta (light)
  • Gamma (light) – >1 ton to GEO
  • Delta (medium) – 1.7 tons to GEO
  • Epsilon (heavy) – 4 tons to GEO.

The first project in the partnership is Alpha, which is an upgraded version of Brazil’s Satellite Launch Vehicle 1 (VLS-1). Brazil worked on the four-stage solid fuel rocket in the early 2000s; however, it put the effort on hold for several years after an explosion killed 21 workers in 2003. Under the revived program, the Russians are helping AEB with improving the reliability of its solid fuel engines. Two of VLS-1’s stages will be replaced with liquid-fueled ones.

The heavier Southern Cross rockets will be based on Russia’s new Angara rocket and include the RD-191 engine in the first stage. The second stage will be based on the engine for Russia’s Molniya rocket, with the third stage consisting of the upgraded VLS-1 (Alpha) rocket.

One advantage of the Southern Cross rockets is that they will use relatively benign fuels. The Ukrainian Cyclone-4 uses toxic fuels (nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine), which is one of the reasons that its Cyclone-3 predecessor is no longer launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The Southern Cross program is a continuation of Russia’s efforts to fund Angara development through foreign partnerships. Angara’s first stage has already flown twice in modified form as part of South Korea’s KSLV-1 rocket program. The French have funded the development of Angara’s upper stage as part of the Soyuz-ST rocket, which will begin flying from the European spaceport at Kourou in October.

Like the Cyclone-4 collaboration, the Southern Cross program appears to have suffered some delays over the past few years. Online research indicates that the Alpha project is running behind schedule. And it appears that an earlier prediction of completing the entire Southern Cross program has slipped about two years to 2022.

The precise causes of the delays are unclear, although it’s likely that the global economic recession has had an impact on progress. The Russians also have suffered years-long delays on its own Angara rocket program upon which the Brazilian rocket series is based.

The challenges

To be able to take advantage of these collaborations, Brazil needs to make some major changes to its small, fragmented space program that is hamstrung by a shortage of resources, money and talent.

“We have big challenges for the development of these vehicles, admitted AEB President Marco Antonio Raupp. “We have to master the technology of liquid propellant, for example.”

Raupp, who took over in March, has an ambitious plan to wants triple the space agency’s budget from 300 to 900 million reals (US$185 to $555 million), streamline management, boost private sector involvement, and educate and train more aerospace workers.

The labor force is one of the biggest things holding back Brazil’s space program. The country has a small, aging workforce of about 3,000 people that will see almost a complete turnover during the next decade. AEB finds it difficult to attract the next generation of engineers and scientists into a space program with a small budget.

“Unattractive salaries, lack of public tenders for the renewal of the framework, discontinuation of actions generate low motivation and self-esteem among professionals and are the causes of this deficit,” said Fernando Moraes, president of the Union of Civil Servants in Science and Technology (SindCT).

To deal with its weak technical and scientific workforce, the Brazilian government wants to award scholarships to 75,000 students to study abroad over the next four years under the Brazil Without Borders program. About 30,000 students are set to go to the United States and 10,000 apiece to England and Germany. Officials also have invited Canada and Belgium to participate in the program, which features student exchanges in both directions.

Raupp’s organizational changes include combining AEB and the INPE under a second single organization to better manage and coordinate space activities.

Raupp is also seeking to have private sector companies take a greater role in building hardware and managing projects in a manner similar to the way NASA operates. Raupp believes the changes will be more efficient and help Brazil to catch up in space technology.

“The development of the industry with innovation, competition, is one of the objectives of the policy,” he said recently.

Disagreement over combining AEB and INPE is reportedly to be one of the reasons why Câmara is leaving as director of the latter organization. However, he cited his exhaustion with having to struggle constantly to obtain resources for INPE.

“I left the space agency is due to the exhaustion caused by the daily struggle with legislation and institutional structures totally inadequate to institutions of S & T. Adding to the frustration at the lack of renewal of the staff by INPE,” Câmara said in a statement.

The effort to bring more commercial firms into the space program is also facing opposition from SindCT [Sindicato dos Servidores Públicos Federais na Área de C&T], the union that represents AEB workers. SindCT President Moraes said a key concern is that private contractors will supplant space agency employees, who have long suffered from a lack of resources, low salaries, and poor morale. The union could seek an injunction against the move and hopes to also engage in a dialogue with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

A South American Space Agency?

An intriguing development that could have a major impact on Brazil’s space effort involves a recent proposal from Argentina to establish a South American space agency. The proposal was made recently by Argentina’s Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli to his Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim.

“Our communications are dependent on services that are satellite data from countries in other regions and so we must join efforts to reach space with a South American space agency,” Puricelli said. “What keeps us from having a satellite launcher South American? The challenge for ministers is to create a South American space schedule and have own satellite in 2025.”

It’s not clear precisely what Puricelli has in mind for this space agency. Would it be simply a joint effort of Brazil and Argentina? Or would it be open to all in the style of the European Space Agency?

Alcântara would be an obvious launch base for any continent-wide space agency. The support of Argentina and neighboring nations could give Brazil’s rocket programs the funding and impetus they need to succeed.

The Spaceport of the Future?

Brazil certainly has grand ambitions for its space program. It also has enormous challenges in finding the funding and resources to accomplish these tasks. If it succeeds, Brazil could rise to the ranks of the world’s major space powers. If not, Alcântara will remain the spaceport of the future.