Alcantara launch center
Alcantara launch center. Credit: Alcantara Cyclone Space

HOUSTON — The government of Brazil is ready to move into the next phase of efforts to attract commercial launch business to the country with the ratification of an agreement with the United States.

Brazil’s Senate formally approved Nov. 12 a technology safeguards agreement that the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, signed in March during a visit to the United States that included a meeting with President Donald Trump. That agreement allows American spacecraft and launch vehicles to be exported to Brazil for launches there, ensuring compliance with export control and nonproliferation policies.

“We did a lot of work talking with representatives and senators to convince them of the importance of an agreement like this,” said Marcos Pontes, minister of science, technology, innovation and communications, during a speech at the annual meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance here Nov. 19. “We showed them the importance of having a center there that is operational and commercially active.”

The approval of the agreement by Brazil’s Senate is a “big victory,” he said, particularly since a similar agreement two decades ago was rejected due to concerns at the time of a loss of sovereignty at the spaceport because of the restricted access Brazilian officials would have to American vehicles and equipment there.

With the ratification of the agreement, Pontes said the government will now focus its efforts on building up the infrastructure at the Alcântara launch site, including roads and other facilities. “By 2021, we will have the infrastructure ready for business there,” he said.

Alcântara can support small and medium-sized launch vehicles, he said, and could be expanded if needed. The location, near the Equator, can support a wide range of launch azimuths, from equatorial to polar.

It’s unclear, though, what interest there is among American companies for launching from Brazil. When the U.S. and Brazil signed the new technology safeguards agreement in March, the only launch company that publicly expressed an interest in launching from Alcântara was Vector, a small launch vehicle developer. In August, Vector announced it was suspending operations and laying off nearly its entire staff because of financial problems.

Earlier, Brazil worked for many years with Ukraine on a joint venture to launch Cyclone-4 rockets from Alcântara. After a series of financial and technical problems, Ukraine abandoned that effort in 2015 and is now working with a Canadian company, Maritime Launch Services, to launch those rockets from a proposed spaceport in Nova Scotia.

Pontes, in his remarks, did not identify any new companies interested in launching from Brazil, but was undeterred by past failures. “We are open for business, open for partnerships,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...