Can Alcântara Compete Against Kourou?

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2019-05-27

Twenty-years ago Brazil signed a space-technology safeguard agreement (TSA) with the United States.  It was intended to be a preamble for American companies to launch satellites from Brazil’s Alcântara Space Center, well-positioned at 2.3 degrees south of the Equator where heavy loads can be lifted off with fuel savings and better angles.  The agreement went for approval in the Brazilian Congress and died there, opposed by parliamentarians who perceived it as restricting Brazilian sovereignty.

The lawmakers who rejected the agreement envisioned Alcântara developing indigenous technology.  It did not work out that way.  In 2003, an attempt to launch a domestic vehicle resulted in a tragic explosion that killed twenty-one Brazilian space engineers.  Later, an agreement with Ukraine to develop a joint-launcher did not succeed either; Brasília canceled it in 2016.

Former President Michel Temer made a new proposal to the U.S. in 2017 and received a counter-proposal soon after.  Last March, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a new space-technology safeguard agreement with President Donald Trump designed to address the twenty-year-old sovereignty concerns. The new accord should be examined soon by the Brazilian Congress and assures Brazil’s control over the base. Overall, the agreement is much better and more balanced, addressing the issues that caused failure two decades ago. However, approving this proposal in the Brazilian Congress remains a challenge. 

President Bolsonaro doesn’t hold a working majority in the Brazilian Congress.  Moreover, during the congressional debates of 2000-2003, frustrations emerged over the safeguard agreement’s omission of technology transfer. Today, U.S. companies still want to protect their intellectual property rights while launching from Brazil.  Of course, the U.S. is also worried about the security risks of a rocket-launching facility so close to its territory, so security guarantees in the new agreement are consistent with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), of which Brazil is a signatory. When approved by Brazil’s Congress, the deal will allow commercial contracts between Alcântara and American launching companies and facilitate Brazil’s launch of other nations’ vehicles that use American components.

Alcântara will finally create a competitor to France’s Guyana Space Center in Kourou, 5 degrees north of the Equator. Kourou was the greatest beneficiary of the failed U.S.-Brazil agreement in the early 2000s, and it still has no competition near the Equator.  A French-European Center, Kourou gives EU companies a lower cost launching advantage.  Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to lead in space technologies and innovation. For example, Space X reduced launch costs dramatically by introducing the reuse of rockets’ stage 1. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Alcântara has been mostly idle.

The truth is that without a TSA with the U.S., Brazil is unlikely to develop Alcântara as an important satellite-launching center.  Soon, with the benefit of hindsight, Brazilian lawmakers will have a second shot at enabling Alcântara to compete against Kourou, and with a much better agreement to vote for. 

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