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

Today, the Latin America 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.

By Alex Sánchez - COHA
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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.