The Alcântara Base’s proximity to the equator promotes fuel savings, one of the main advantages for airspace companies.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro conducted his first official visit to the United States, following an invitation from U.S. President Donald Trump, March 17-19, 2019. In one of the highlights of the meeting, both countries signed the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), after nearly 20 years of dialogue. The treaty will allow U.S. companies—and companies from other countries who leverage U.S. technology in their satellites and rockets—to launch from the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA, in Portuguese), with the guarantee that technology and patents will be protected against unauthorized use or copy.
“Brazil’s proximity to the equator makes it an ideal launch location. My administration is committed to reviving America’s proud legacy in space. We’re looking very strongly, as you know, and working together with everybody on Space Force. And we are grateful for Brazil’s partnership,” said President Trump during a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden, March 19.
CLA—in the state of Maranhão, in the northeast of Brazil—is about 225 kilometers from the equator. Launches from this base shorten space travel, with fuel savings that analysts estimate at 20 to 30 percent. The location also has easy access to the sea, which is important for containers arriving on ships.
History of dialogue
The terms of the recently signed agreement have been underway since 2000. At the time, differences regarding privacy information and access to certain areas of CLA curbed the progress of negotiations.
One of the most controversial topics in the previous agreement was the projection of segregated areas to which Brazilians could not enter. The new terms only call for access restrictions. Some places will only allow the entry of U.S. technicians carrying a badge issued by both Brazil and the United States. Police, firefighters, and Brazilian investigators will enter as needed. U.S. rockets will be assembled in those areas. The United States uses other bases around the world with the same setup and under similar agreements.
Another circumvented aspect, according to the current terms, is the inspection of U.S. shipped containers that will now be allowed to go through Brazilian Customs. The Brazilian government must be informed of the rocket’s orbit, as well as the presence of radioactive artifacts housed at CLA.
In addition, the use of CLA will be civil and peaceful—an important point as a lot of the equipment and software, which place satellites into orbit, are also used to launch missiles. Those are prohibited from being launched from Alcântara.
Leap forward in development
“This will be very good for the state and for the [Maranhão] region,” said Brazilian Minister of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communications Marcos Pontes, a former astronaut. He and Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo signed the TSA during a ceremony at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in Washington D.C., on March 18, alongside U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford. The agreement still requires approval from the Brazilian Congress.
The U.S. Kennedy Space Center inspired the Brazilian government to transform CLA’s surrounding region. According to Pontes, the commercial use of the U.S. launch base advanced the local economy, following challenges faced toward the end of NASA’s space shuttle program.
Likewise, Brazil intends to create a plan to promote professional training and generate jobs in Alcântara, and “help companies and local startups, who can also work with the center, grow, all of which increases local wealth, quality of life, and so forth. This is the only way to make it work well,” Pontes said.
In addition to local impact, the agreement enables Brazil to renew dreams of developing its space program. In late 2018, the Brazilian Air Force estimated that tax collections could amount to $35 million per year just on CLA launches. The amount corresponds to five times the annual average the country invested in its national space program in the last 10 years. This new potential capital could allow for planned resource injections in the national space sector.