Dal New York Times
April 8, 2006
Brazil’s Man in Space: A Mere ‘Hitchhiker,’ or a Hero?
By LARRY ROHTER
BRASÍLIA, April 6 — Since late last month, a Brazilian has been orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station, fulfilling a longstanding ambition here. But because of the manner in which Brazil’s first astronaut was launched into space, national pride has been mixed with pointed criticisms of weaknesses and deficiencies in the country’s three-decade-old space program.
The astronaut, Marcos Pontes, a 43-year-old air force colonel, has become a national idol, stealing headlines even from soccer stars like Ronaldinho. He has waved the Brazilian flag, talked with schoolchildren, reporters and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and even found himself lionized in a comic book and toys.
But many Brazilian scientists, along with newspaper columnists and editorial writers, have criticized the voyage, which ends early Sunday, as a boondoggle. They argue that the roughly $10.5 million that Brazil paid Russia to launch Colonel Pontes aboard a Soyuz rocket would have been better spent on research here on Earth or invested in rebuilding a space port destroyed in 2003 in a launching pad explosion that killed 21 scientists and technicians.
“The scientific value of this voyage is almost nil,” Ennio Candotti, a physicist who is the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, complained to reporters. He also described Colonel Pontes as a “space tourist” and a “paying hitchhiker,” and dismissed the astronaut’s eight on-board experiments as “simply for show.”
Government officials, however, say the gains in putting a Brazilian in space are scientific and political. They want to double the budget of the space program, chronically short of funds, to $200 million a year, and view increased public support for the effort and understanding of it as the best ways to persuade the Brazilian Congress to loosen purse strings.
“The idea is to give visibility to the program,” Sergio Gaudenzi, the director of the Brazilian Space Agency, said in an interview here on Thursday. A decade ago, he added, “China, Brazil and India were all at the same level, but China has surged ahead, and we have been left behind,” largely because of a lack of sustained investment.
With more money, Mr. Gaudenzi said, Brazil would be able to build four additional launching pads at its equatorial Alcantara base, considered one of the best launching sites in the world because the Earth’s rotation is faster there, making it easier and cheaper to put a vehicle into orbit. Brazil also plans to build and launch up to three geostationary communications satellites, and needs to develop its own rocket in order to do so, he said.
The origins of Colonel Pontes’s voyage go back to 1997, when Brazil was invited, at NASA’s behest, to be one of 16 nations participating in the International Space Station project. In return for manufacturing certain parts for the station, at an estimated cost of $120 million, Brazil would receive the right to send someone into space.
The United States was eager to have Brazil involved because Washington wants to increase scientific exchanges with a country that has excelled in several niches. Brazil is a recognized leader, for example, in the manufacture of medium-size jets, genome mapping and numerous technologies adapted for use in the tropics.
But Brazil informed the consortium in 2001 that it would not be able to meet the first deadline, in part because funds were lacking. It then missed a second deadline, and Colonel Pontes’s mission was put on indefinite hold.
During a visit to Russia late last year, Mr. da Silva, rather than lose the money already invested in Colonel Pontes’s training, signed an agreement that made the Brazilian astronaut a paying customer aboard a Russian spacecraft. Russia also agreed to help Brazil develop a liquid fuel rocket, the weak spot in a program that has had some success in building and launching satellites.
At the 2003 funeral of the victims of the Alcantara disaster, Mr. da Silva promised that Brazil would still launch its first rocket into space by the time his term ended, at the end of this year. But Mr. Gaudenzi said that target had been abandoned as unrealistic, with 2009 set as the most likely new date for a launching attempt.
Colonel Pontes’s space voyage is officially known as the Centennial Mission, a reference to Brazil’s pioneering aviator Alberto Santos Dumont. Brazilians are taught that Santos Dumont, not the Wright Brothers, was the first man to fly, before cheering throngs in Paris in 1906. Colonel Pontes has even been photographed aboard the space station wearing one of Santos Dumont’s trademark white Panama hats.
“Few have been the moments in which we’ve been as proud of a Brazilian as we are of you,” Mr. da Silva, who must win an October election if he is to have a second term, said during a televised 14-minute conversation with the astronaut on Wednesday. “What we are spending is little compared to what this could represent for Brazilian space policy.”