Op-ed | Order and Progress – Brazil’s Second Act in Space

by

For decades, journalists and analysts have characterized Brazil as a “sleeping giant” perpetually on the verge of “waking up” to its enormous economic and geopolitical potential. In 1971, the New York Times proclaimed, “The giant of the continent, dismissed as a sleeping giant until recently, has begun to stir, and interest in Brazil’s intentions has grown among her neighbors.”

In reporting over the last decade, the notion of a slumbering nation has often been used in the context of Brazil’s space ambitions, but that’s not the best way to look at it. Today, as the pieces of Brazil’s modern space ecosystem slide into place, the country isn’t just now waking up to the value and potential in the space ecosystem. It is entering its “second act.”

 

The Roots of Global Collaboration

Brazil’s first act, from the 1960s through about the turn of the century, included many of the common elements in growing space programs during that time. It had a sounding rocket program for science and technology research as a precursor to an orbital launch vehicle. It conducted satellite research and inked agreements with spacefaring nations to build and launch satellites and space assets. And it built a launch facility in Alcântara in the far north of the country. 

The Brazilian Space Program was replaced by the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) in 1994, and importantly, in the government structure, the agency sat directly beneath the Presidency of the Republic. This helped prioritize the agency’s efforts among Brazil’s government programs. 

Then came a chain of complications. In 2000, AEB was moved down several layers of bureaucracy, with a corresponding impact on priority and budget. A few years later, an attempted launch of an experimental satellite launch vehicle exploded on the launch pad and killed 21 people, many of them scientists. Decreased investment, lower priority, and a series of other misfortunes led to years of negligence in the space sector, according to Dr. Adriana Cursino Thomé, a senior technologist who has been working in the sector for many years in Brazil (and who notes her opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of her employer, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation).

“In spite of having the space sector in the spotlight for some years now, to catch up to be in the same spot we were some decades ago requires a huge effort,” she said. “We are going to have to work a lot because nowadays, we have many more spacefaring nations. It is a big task.”

The last couple of years have been particularly challenging due to the global pandemic. Brazil’s space budget contracted nearly 75% in 2020, and just 19% of the AEB budget was even spent, according to The Space Report. Yet, despite these and other obstacles, there is earnest optimism on the part of Thomé and others in the Brazilian space community. And it is certainly helpful that the current Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Marcos Pontes, is Brazil’s only former astronaut. He was instrumental in leading Brazil to sign the Artemis Accords in 2021.

“Brazil is back,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jose Vagner Vital, former Brazilian Air Force Space Commission Executive Vice President, Coordinator of the Aerospace Committee of the National Union of Defense Material Industries (SIMDE), and Vice President of the International Academy of Space Studies. He credits this rebound to two key achievements that have unlocked the potential and momentum in the next phase of Brazilian space activity: government investment in the development of the domestic VLM rocket and the approval of the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), which opened the Alcântara Space Center for global business.

Work on the three-stage, solid-fuel VLM began in 2008, but the momentum of its development has picked up in recent years, aided in part by collaboration with the German Space Agency. The vehicle’s future uses are not the only exciting outcome from this work. When ready, it will give Brazil indigenous launch capabilities, and that means stepped-up government demand for everything from producing the components of the vehicle to analyzing data returned from space. 

Meanwhile, in 2019, Brazil and the United States signed the TSA, which allows U.S. space technologies to be imported to Brazil for launch. The TSA was a transformative step for Brazil’s space ecosystem because it opens the global market to one of the crown jewels of Brazilian space infrastructure—the Alcântara Space Center.

 

Liftoff for Commercial Space

For the global space ecosystem, Alcântara is unique in many respects. No other center is as close to the equator (just two degrees south), which provides valuable options for fuel economy and launching into hard-to-reach orbits. It also has broad clearance for launches, with the open Atlantic to the east and largely rural, forested areas surrounding on three other sides. This has the added benefit of more modest launch insurance prices as vehicles can be sent on trajectories that present lower risk to people and buildings on the ground.

With the launch center open for global business (given the TSA), some of the first launch providers are developing agreements. In April 2021, Virgin Orbit was selected as one of four companies allowed to provide launches from Alcântara. The other three companies negotiating contracts are Hyperion, Orion AST, and C6 Launch

As with every nation’s journey through the space age, big achievements open the door to solve new challenges. When it comes to Brazil’s nascent commercial space sector, many of the remaining challenges are common to space programs around the world, among them, accessing funding and translating scientific innovation to entrepreneurial success. 

“Funding is very hard to secure,” said Paulo Eduardo Vasconcellos, a retired general officer and former CIO for the Brazilian Air Force. “Because of the R&D scientific approach to space, most of the startups are launched by researchers, and they don’t know how to talk business. They just want to do rockets or space hardware. The investors say, ‘And? What is my return?’”

Vasconcellos is also the COO for C6 in Brazil. He noted the company’s intention is to build some of the core elements needed to transform the commercial space landscape, including bringing the global space supply chain to Brazil, something Vasconcellos said will be game-changing for space in Brazil.

Meanwhile, there are challenges in enticing scientists and technical experts to join a private company. 

“Many scientists are really worried about involvement with the commercial sector because they are afraid of not being self-sufficient,” said Thomé. “They believe that if they associate with the commercial company, they will have to follow what the company wants and not what’s important to their research.”

A third type of challenge for commercial space is access to government demand, which is a phenomenon common to several nations developing their domestic space economy. When government space needs (such as launch services and components manufacturing) are opened to the commercial sector, it provides a reliable source of funding to sustain the business while the company also develops expertise and intellectual property that can be sold to other customers. This is how the global space economy grows. 

“The ecosystem already exists,” said Vital, who also serves as Innovation & Business Director at Saipher. “But the ecosystem is focused on science and technology research and not focused enough on space services because there is a lack of demand [from the government]. That’s why industry is very concerned and is saying, ‘Government, if you buy more services, we can adapt, improve, satisfy the demand and go to market.’”

Even if it has not matured to its final shape and makeup, Brazil’s space ecosystem is on the path to growth and is integrating with the global space community. As with any space endeavor, future success will hinge on a space-ready workforce. 

 

Opportunities for the Workforce

When it comes to science and technology education at the university level, Brazil already enjoys a collegiate system capable of producing some of the best and brightest minds that can support the space ecosystem. 

“Although we don’t have many undergraduate courses related to space, we have very good graduate courses in the area, many of them offered at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and at the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA),” said Thomé. 

Both institutes are located in São Paulo, the most populous state in Brazil. While this is advantageous for the state, it requires students from around the country to relocate to study, a phenomenon throughout the university system that Thomé said can be challenging.  

The Institute is located in São Paulo, the most populous state in Brazil. While this is advantageous for the state, it requires students from around the country to relocate to study, a phenomenon throughout the university system that Thomé said can be challenging. 

Another factor for Brazil is gender disparity in higher education. The proportion of 25-34-year-old women who completed tertiary education is one of the lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This discrepancy is a challenge worldwide, but it’s one Brazil is striving to address. In October 2021, at the Dubai Expo, I was pleased to present at an expert meeting of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs Space4Women project, which included representatives from the UAE and Brazil discussing how space benefits can be used to reach women and girls and foster their equal participation in the global space ecosystem. 

Part of the challenge overall is providing an opportunity for young people to imagine the possibilities and opportunities in the space ecosystem, from basic research to commercializing space technologies. For our part, Space Foundation is working with PR Tecnologia to integrate our Junior Space Entrepreneur Program (JSEP) curriculum with the organization’s digital platform to provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), non-STEM, and 21st-century essential business and life skills learning to Brazilian students. We are also working with the MILO Space Science Institute, which has signed an MOU with the Brazilian Space Agency to enrich and support its space workforce development and provide access to missions. 

Brazil is not unlike other countries in how it views the economic impact of space in multiple ways,” said David Thomas, executive director of MILO. “What I think is happening that is special about this point in history is that heretofore, space has been perceived to be out of reach by many people…The students who are emerging today are not going to have a mental barrier in front of them, thinking that space is out of reach. Now, there are so many opportunities to take part.” 

Working in the space ecosystem can be both the career goal and the pathway to achieve it. And importantly, the benefits along the way will not be limited to new rockets, Alcântara, and a blossoming space industry. As Thomas said:

Space encompasses many domains. As we are building capacity, we are training not just the next generation of space explorers but also the next generation of ‘Earth solvers.’ These are transferable skills. What’s special about space is the downstream effect. The monetary benefit is compounded because what you’re doing is creating a STEM workforce that will then go on and do other things for the people on planet Earth.”

In Brazil today, the components of a thriving space ecosystem are coming together. To be sure, the country’s many space stakeholders are wide awake to the opportunities ahead, and as Brazil enters its second act, the best is yet to come.


Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of Space Foundation.