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Brazil relaunches its space industry by opening the Alcântara base to the US

The Brazilian Congress has approved to ratify the Technological Safeguards Agreement signed by Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro

With the reactivación of the launch site in Alcântara, the world’s most perfectly placed launch site due to its proximity to the Equator, the Brazilian space industry hopes to achieve 10 billion dollars a year in business deals by the year 2040, with control of at least 1% of the global market, especially in space launches. The Bolsonaro administration has accepted the Technological Safeguards Agreement with the USA, an agreement that has evaded Washington before the Workers Party arrived to power.

Área de lanzamiento espacial del centro espacial brasileño de Alcántara [AEB]

▲ Launch premises at the Brazilian launch site in Alcântara, near the Equator [AEB]

ARTICLEAlejandro J. Afonso [Spanish version]

Brazil wants to be a part of the new Space Age, where private companies, especially from the United States, are going to be the protagonists, alongside with the traditional national space agencies of the global powers. With the Technological Safeguards Agreement, signed in March 2019 by President Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, the strategic Alcântara launch site will be able to launch rockets, spacecraft and satellites equipped with American technology.

The guarantee of technological confidentiality - access to some areas of the base will be authorized only to American personnel, although the jurisdiction of the base will remain with the Brazilian Armed Forces - will permit that Alcântara need not negotiate contracts with only 20% of the global market, as it has been until now, something that has held back the economic rentability of the base. However, this agreement is also limiting, in that Brazil is only authorized to launch national or foreign rockets and spacecraft that are composed of technology that has been developed by the United States.

The new political landscape in which Brazil finds itself has permitted the agreement to be ratified without issue on the 22nd of October by the Chamber of Deputies and on the 12th of November by the Senate, a very different situation than that of 2000, when the Brazilian Congress blocked the agreement proposed by then president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The subsequent arrival to power of the Workers Party, with the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva and Dilma Rousseff, froze relations between Brazil and the United States, leading Washington to momentarily set aside its interest for Alcântara.

The Alcântara Launch Site is situated in Maranhão, a state in north northeast Brazil. Alcântara is a small colonial town that sits 100 kilometers away from the state capital of São Luís. The town has 22,000 inhabitants and access to the sea. The launch site was constructed during the 1980s, and has a campus 620 kilometers squared. Furthermore, the launch site is located 2.3 degrees south of the Equator, making the site an ideal location for launching satellites into geostationary orbit, meaning that the satellites remain fixed over one area of earth during rotation. The unique geographical conditions of the launch site, which facilitates the launch of rockets for geostationary orbit, attracts companies that are interested in launching small or medium satellites, usually used for communications or surveillance satellites. Unfortunately, the institution suffered a bad repute when operations were briefly halted due to a failed launch in 2003, resulting in the deaths of 21 technicians and the destruction of some of the installations.

The United States is interested in the Alcântara Launch site due to its strategic location. As mentioned previously, the launch site is located 2.3 degrees south of the Equator, thus allowing US rockets to save up to 30% on fuel consumption in comparison to launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Likewise, due to its proximity to the Equator, the resistance to reach orbit is lesser than Cape Canaveral, meaning that companies can increase the weight of the rocket or of the load it is carrying without adding additional fuel5. Thus, this location offers American companies the same advantages enjoyed by their European counterparts who utilize a launch site in French Guiana, located nearby, north of the Equator. The Technology Safeguards Agreement signed between Presidents Bolsonaro and Trump in March is meant to attract these American companies by ensuring that any American companies using the Alcântara launch site will have the necessary protection and safeguards to ensure that the technology used is not stolen or copied by Brazilian officials.

Brazil’s space aspirations are not new; the Brazilian Space industry is the largest in Latin America. In the 1960s, the Brazilian government constructed their first launch site, Barreira do Inferno, close to the city of Natal. In 1994, the military’s space investigation transformed into the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), a national agency. In addition to the development of satellites, in 2004 the AEB launched their first rocket. Furthermore, in 2006 Marcos Pontes became the first brazilian astronaut to incorporate into the International Space Station, of which Brazilian is a partner.

The Brazilian government is clearly interested in the Americans using the Alcântara launch site. The global space industry is worth approximately 300 billion USD, and Brazil, who still has a developing space agency, could utilize funds earned from leasing the launch site to further develop their space capabilities7. The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) has been underfunded for many years, and could do with the supposedly 3.5 billion USD that will come with American use of the Alcântara Launch Site. Furthermore, Brazilian officials have speculated that investment into the launch site will bring with it further investment into the Alcântara region as a whole, improving the quality of life there. In conclusion, the Brazilian government led by Jair Bolsonaro hopes that with the signing of this TSA the relationship between the US and Brazil deepens, and with this deepened relationship comes monetary means to invest in the launch site and its surrounding areas, and invest in the Brazilian Space Agency.

However, this agreement does not come without its critics. In 2000, the government of Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to sign a similar agreement with the Bush administration that was eventually blocked by the Brazilian congress in fear that Brazil would be ceding its sovereignty to the United States. These same fears are still present today. Brazilian former Minister of Foreign Affairs Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães Nieto stated that the United States is seeking to establish a military base within Brazil, thus exercising sovereignty over Brazil and its people. Criticism is also directed to the wording of the agreement itself, stating that the money that the Brazilian government earns from American use of the launch site cannot be invested into Brazilian rockets, but can be invested in other areas concerning the Brazilian Space Agency.

In addition to the arguments concerning the integrity of Brazilian sovereignty is also a defense of the Quilombolas, descendants of Brazilian slaves that escaped their masters, who were displaced from their coastal land when the base was originally built. Currently, the government is proposing to increase the size of the Alcântara launch site by 12,000 hectares, and the Quilombo communities fear that they will once again be forced to move, causing further impoverishment. This has garnered a response in both the Brazilian congress as well as the American Congress, with Democrat House Representatives introducing a resolution calling on the Bolsonaro government to respect the rights of the Quilombolas.

The Technology Safeguards Agreement is a primarily commercial agreement in order to attract more American companies to Brazil for an ideal launch site in Alcântara, which would save these companies money due to the ideal location of the launch site while investing in the Brazilian economy and space program. However, due to the controversies listed above, some may consider this a one sided agreement where only American interests prevail, while the Brazilian government and people lose sovereignty over their land. At the same time, one point could be made: Brazil has traditionally developed an important aeronautic industry (Embraer, recently bought by Boeing, is an outstanding example) and the Alcântara base gives it the opportunity of jumping into the new space era.

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