In a ceremony full of pomp and circumstance, the Brazilian government announced on Wednesday (28) the selection of four companies to commercially explore the Alcântara Space Center in Maranhão. The winners included three American companies and one Canadian company. The four came from a shortlist of nine. And there is already a second call for proposals for the selection of new interested companies.
Is it good news? IT IS. But not as well as government personnel would lead you to believe (in fact, it is impressive that we had the President of the Republic and several ministers celebrating the victory of small foreign companies in a selection process that, oddly enough, did not include the mandatory law).
Of the four, the only one for which a vehicle has already been developed for launch is the American Virgin Orbit, which was installed at the airport in downtown Maranhão. This makes sense because the company has a launcher that launches from an airplane, like the old American Pegasus rocket that launched Brazil’s first satellite, the SCD-1, in 1993. And at least it exists. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket successfully launched for the first time on January 17, 2021.
The other selected companies, C6 Launch Systems (Canada), Orion AST (USA) and Hyperion (USA) have no launch vehicles ready (at best they already exist on paper and in PowerPoint presentations).
The choices made by the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) in line with the Brazilian Air Force did not include submitting deadlines for operations to begin. By the way, experts point out that the Federal Supreme Court (TCU) may see problems with the signing of contracts with companies, since the public announcement did not contain the bidding law. Nevertheless, the Alcântara Space Center was divided into four areas, each of which was assigned to one of the selected companies.
Hyperion (without a launcher) took over the operation of the platform system left behind by the VLS (the old Brazilian satellite launcher vehicle that was canceled between 1997 and 2003 after three failed attempts to fly). Orion AST used the universal platform for suborbital launches. And the C6 launch took up the area of the wind profiler and was then used for atmospheric measurements in the middle. Virgin Orbit, on the other hand, took the runway from Alcântara Airport in the center.
During the lecture, the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Marcos Pontes, emphasized the difference between “speaking and doing” and presented the selection process as an example for the second category. Undoubtedly, this is an important distinction in space programs that have stagnated for decades. However, the announcement of partnerships is far from being qualified, as the Brazilian astronaut should remember, by the way. Ultimately, through an agreement signed between Brazil and the United States in 1997, our country became a partner in the International Space Station, which made it possible for him to train at NASA and then fly into orbit. Yet Brazil did almost nothing in this agreement and was eventually excluded from the program.
Examples like this pile up in Brazil’s difficult history with international partners. Put our “entry” into ESO, the largest astronomical organization in the world, and agreements like this one with Ukraine, which created the binational Alcântara Cyclone Space, for the launch of the Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rockets (which have yet to be developed) from the ground national. In both cases the bureaucratic celebration ended in the mud.
The difference between these previous and current cases lies in the scope of the ambitions: it seems relatively easy (with minimal changes to the infrastructure) to have a Boeing 747 with a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket lift off from Alcântara, or even on the launch of the C6 hope the systems will be able to develop a small rocket to put 30 kg into orbit. This can mark the division between this new endeavor and previous endeavors. And it’s worth celebrating: for a government that normally works on fantasies, it’s good that it’s based on reality this time around – especially the fact that Alcântara’s competitive advantage increases the smaller the launch vehicles and satellites.
In fact, Virgin Orbit was excited about the opportunity to operate in Brazil: “The mobility of our launch system would allow us to run Cosmic Girl [o 747] and the LauncherOne of the existing air base in the Alcântara Space Center – one of the few continental spaceports in the world that can support missions for * any * 0 orbit inclination. In Alcântara, our goal is to have an essentially zero footprint on site: we will transport our entire system – ground support vehicles, Cosmic Girl and the missile itself – to conduct launch campaigns in a country that has never successfully completed an orbit launch before Has . ”
He continued, “For the Brazilian community, LauncherOne offers the fastest, cheapest route to a dream that has been unattainable for more than 40 years: a domestic launchability that offers tremendous economic and scientific benefits without the need for more land use. ”
There is still a technical and bureaucratic road ahead of us to make the spaceflight and local development show for Maranhão, which was presented under flashing lights in an auditorium in Brasilia. The star messenger naturally hopes that the transmission from one point to another will be successful as soon as possible. We all agree with Pontes on one thing: the wait has been too long.
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