Space Technology Comes to Latin America: Part of the Hemisphere’s Road to Autonomy

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Alex Sánchez on Latin America’s Space Race

In 2006 Marcos Pontes, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Brazilian Air Force, became the first Brazilian national to go into space as a member of the crew of the Expedition-13. This event is both a landmark in Brazilian history as well as an interesting example of a developing science that has political, economic and security-related repercussions for space technology in Latin America.

Today, the area has made considerable progress in trying to break away from Washington’s traditional dominance. A home-grown hemispheric space program, with the aid of major outside powers like France, Russia and China, represents the latest round of this growing trend.

Latin American space technology is still in its infancy and will be for years (if not decades) to come. It will continue to rely on major foreign powers for technology, expertise and launch-capabilities; Pontes himself continues to work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nevertheless, the development of home-grown space technology in Latin America can be defined as both a short-term and a long-term project for many nations.

Space technology provides a nation with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be of great aid to Latin American countries, in order to improve telecommunication capabilities to isolated areas as well as monitoring environmental conditions. At the same time, space technology can easily be used for military means, spying on another country’s armed forces as well as hacking into closed security networks. Given the arms race that recently seems to be speeding up in parts of the region, very close oversight will be necessary by local governments and by the international community to insure that the space technology being developed in Latin America does not become another route for regional instability.

Examples of Independence
For the past several years, Latin American nations have been seeking a greater degree of political and economic independence from the U.S.; this has been evidenced by the rise of various varieties of left-leaning governments throughout the region that are cool to Washington on one degree or another.

For the most part, Latin American space programs are still in the phase of just beginning to taking their first shaky babysteps. Many years will have to pass for these programs to mature to the point that they may decide to follow a course of the militarization of space, not to mention lessen their dependency on existing space powers for space-related necessities such as launch capabilities. Nevertheless countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Peru exemplify that Latin America’s home-grown space programs are sufficiently advanced to deserve respect. It may not be far-fetched to argue that at some point in the near future Latin America may be asked to vote on the space-militarization issue.

Because Argentina’s space program lacks launch capabilities, it relies on other nations to put its satellites in orbit. For example, in 2007, an Italian-Argentine satellite for emergency management (called the Cosmo/Skymed II), was placed in orbit after being launched from Vanderberg Air Force base in California.

Peru possesses an even more primitive space program, though it has achieved some success. On December 2006, the first Peruvian space probe, the Paulet I, was launched from the Punta Lobos Air Force base in Pucusana (south of Lima). The probe which took two years to be manufactured, carried devices that could measure conditions in the upper atmosphere, including pressure, temperature and humidity, as well as astrophysics equipment. After the launch, Peruvian Air Force colonel Wolfgang Dupeyrat, head of Peru’s space agency CONIDA, declared that Peru sought to develop its own space program.

Brazil on Land
Brazil’s mega-project SIVAM (System for the Vigilance of the Amazon) is one of the prides of the Brazilian military, as the program is under its supervision. SIVAM was originally conceived in the early 1990s as a system to monitor changes in the Amazon’s readings and assay its potential for change. The SIVAM initiative is regarded as the world’s largest environmental monitoring and protection program, as it engages in the surveillance of over two million square miles of Amazon rainforest. The U.S.-based Raytheon Company, along with the Brazilian companies ASTECH and Embraer, were contracted in 1997 to begin the screening program. The system was inaugurated in 2002 and became fully operational in 2004. The project has had a history of controversies, including under funding and allegations that Raytheon bribed Brazilian government officials to be selected for the overall contract. Although the goal of the system is to monitor deforestation, and identify forest fires as well as air and water pollution, analysts argue that there is not sufficient funding behind the program to have enough specialists to actually interpret and analyze the data that is being collected.

Nevertheless, SIVAM is regarded as one of the country’s most important pieces of environmental infrastructure. It also supports a national security doctrine, because it can, if necessary, be used to monitor the country’s borders for drug-smuggling and other criminal activities or, as far-fetched as it may sound, a potential attack from a foreign power.

Brazil in Space
Brazil is seriously weighing an independent space program, and has the most ambitious plans to reach this goal by means of its own space centre in Alcantara, Maranhao. Unfortunately, an explosion in 2003 destroyed most of the centre and killed 21 people. The explosion put the future of Brazil’s space program seriously in jeopardy at the time, with an investigation commission claiming that the accident could be traced back to insufficient funding and lax management. According to reports, the replacement facility will cost between $150-300 million. The goal is to make the new facilities to resemble the launch base in Taiyuan, the Chinese province of Shanxi. Sergio Rezende, Brazilian Minister of Science and Technology visited in the Chinese facilities in 2007, and also attended the launch of the CBERS-2B, China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite.

In October 2004, 14 months after the Alcantara explosion, Brazil successfully launched its first rocket, the VSB-30 into space. In 2006, in order to promote its achievements, the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) set up an exhibit and arranged for a seminar entitled “Brazil Conquering Space” in such major centres as Recife and Brasilia.
In December 2007, Brazil and Argentina (which also has a fairly developed space program of its own) successfully launched a VS30 rocket into space. The launch was the culmination of a 1998 accord between the countries’ space agencies and took place in Brazil’s Barreira do Inferno Launch Center in the state of Rio Grande do Norde. In November 2007, a month before the historic launch of the VS30, both countries signed an agreement to jointly develop a satellite that will provide global information on “optical properties” of the oceans, which could be applied to research in the fields of oceanography and climatology. According to reports, Brazilian authorities stated that the equipment to be used in the project will “contribute to the ‘technological independence’ of the two countries when it comes to space quality sensors, whose purchase is ‘liable to restrictions’ in the international market.”

External Aid to a Home-Grown Space Program
For the immediate and near future, Latin American countries will have to rely heavily on external powers for launching satellites, expertise, etc. Fortunately for them, nations with developed programs in the field are not short in supply or good will. Russia, China and the European Union (specifically France) all have developed space programs and have shown themselves to be more than willing to assist Latin American countries in their quest for free-standing space-programs.

According to President Hugo Chavez in an announcement last month, China, for example, will be launching Venezuela’s satellite “Simon Bolivar.” The launch has been scheduled for November and will take place in the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre; the satellite is to have broadcasting and telecommunications capacities and a life-span of 15 years. The Chinese company China Great Wall Industry Corp was contracted in 2005 to design, manufacture, test and put into orbit the satellite. Uruguay later joined the $241-million project, financing 10% of the cost. Venezuela’s science and technology minister Héctor Navarro said that the launching of the satellite will also boost several industries related to the satellite market, including bringing telephone, high-speed internet and TV services to isolated areas in the country.

President Chavez has declared that his TV show “Alo Presidente” will be broadcasted via the satellite once it is launched. The leader has also declared that Venezuela is already working on another satellite, to be launched in 2013, also from China, capable of mapping the country. “Who has got great multicolored maps of Venezuela? The Yankees [meaning the U.S.],” he said, then adding “now we are going to have our own. We have to get ready to launch the second satellite, which should be for observation, for images.”

Meanwhile, Mexican Satellites (Satmex) is looking for foreign financing to fund the construction and launch of Satmex 7. Satmex launched another satellite last March, the Solidaridad 2. European rocket manufacturer Arianespace, with its worldwide launching experience, stands out among the firms with the capability of placing Satamex 7 into orbit. .

However it is the European Union (particularly France) that may be in a position to further negotiate with Latin American governments about mutual cooperation and investment in their home-grown space programs. For starters, there have been a number of space summits between Latin America and Brussels in past decades, striving for greater integration. Furthermore the Ibero-American General Secretariat, based in Madrid, is aiming to bring Latin America closer to Spain and Portugal. France, however, is the country that is in the best geopolitical position to aid Latin America’s quest for a growing space program. French Guyana, a French overseas territory in northern South America, that borders Suriname as well as Brazil, is presently serving as a launching pad for the EU’s space program, as well as for launches??? from other nations. Particularly during the presidencies of Jacques Chirac and now Nikolas Sarkozy, Paris had strived to penetrate Latin America and the Caribbean in search of potential allies, with Brazil as its main priority. It seems that cooperation in space research and technology is another link that is bringing Paris and Brasilia together.

Russia is utilizing the French equatorial cosmodrome. Officials report plans to launch the first Soyuz-ST in spring 2009. Roskosmos [Russian space agency] head Anatoliy Perminov has declared that “This is a symbol of Russian-French friendship in space exploration.” Equally important about this event is that both Russia and France are interested in deepening their relationship with regional powerhouse Brazil, who has an ambitious space program of its own. Brazilian military officials visited Russia’s space center in Baikonour (in Kazakhstan) in 2005. In December 2007 the Interfax-AVN military news agency reported that Russia’s Khrunichev Company offered cooperation to Brazil in the implementation of the Southern Cross project to develop a family of carrier rockets. The offer came during the Latin America Aerospace & Defense (LAAD) 2007 conference in Rio de Janeiro. Khrunichev’s press office stated that the company is “ready to take part in the development of the Gama carrier rocket.” Russia also approached Argentina to improve ties between both countries’ space agencies.

A Latin American Space Program, Possibilities and Realities from a Security Perspective
Any regional space program will have to be put in a perspective of ongoing security issues. It is absurd to believe that any country, even Washington’s nemesis Venezuela, could prove to be a security issue to the U.S. or the world order for decades to come, even in a worse-case scenario.

The best example where this might be possible could be with Chile, which to one degree or another is regarded as a security issue by its three immediate neighbors, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. This past July, Santiago announced the purchase of a $72 million satellite from the French EADS Astrium. The objective is to have the satellite gather mining, agricultural and environmental information as well as to monitor Chile’s borders. The fear, especially for Lima, is that this satellite may be used for telecommunications as well as for surveillance and reconnaissance of Peruvian military installations in case, unlikely enough, of an eventual armed conflict between the two countries. The satellite is expected to be launched in 2010. Considering Chile’s normally aggressive foreign and defense policy, which borders recklessness in view of its Lockheed aircraft military jet purchases from the U.S. in recent years, a satellite with reconnaissance capabilities further adds fuel to the idea that Chile is embarked on some kind of expansionist plan and may represent a threat to regional peace.

Arriba, Arriba and Away!
Latin American space programs being formulated in such countries as Brazil, Peru, Venezuela and Chile are still mainly in their infancy. They pose not the slightest prospect of challenging those being fielded by Washington, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. Nevertheless, such programs exist, and at some point, in the distant future, these countries may even be as bold as to aspire to be part of the decision making process currently going on about the militarization and future uses of space.

Analysts differ on the need for such programs. Some argue that, given Latin America’s current state of poverty and economic inequality, founds allocated to space programs could be better utilized for national development in critical areas like agriculture, feeding the poor, or creating jobs. Other specialists argue that such programs are necessary in order to achieve Latin America’s autonomy from the influence of the world’s major powers, including the U.S. In addition, a space program does not automatically have to have a militarized edge to it; non-military uses like improved telecommunications are urgently required in a region whose geography includes both the Andes and the Amazon.

In the meantime, Latin American space programs will continue to be heavily depended on aid and technical assistance from nations with sophisticated economies and the necessary expertise and launch capabilities. Nevertheless, even in their current early stages, Latin American space programs have the possibility to change the security landscape of the region. Space is a way for a society to test its limits, but this must go hand in hand with responsible oversight by a civilian chain of command in each of the countries to make certain that these programs are not distorted by being militarized.