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27 April, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Zahorodnii

Ukrainian-Brazilian Space Adventure

The Alcantara Launch Center is so exotic a project that the Ukrainian president has a hard time pronouncing its name. The Latin American passions raging around the Ukrainian-Brazilian joint venture

A tropical downpour begins suddenly and ends just a fast 10 minutes later. This weather repeats itself several times a as the rainy season draws to a close in the Brazilian town of Alcantara. Moments after the downpour, the sun is again boiling the earth. Alcantara is about 300 km from the equator and just 11 km from the aerospace launch center. An ideal road, by Ukrainian standards, leads to the launching site. The road was built several years ago on commission from the military. Our driver Carlos can barely keep himself from letting the brand-new off-road vehicle hurtle over a hundred km/h. The only thing stopping him is the threat of a 75 reals (USD 40) fine.

THE SPIRITS OF QUILOMBOLAS

Our driver immediately agrees to our request to be shown the Quilombolas, the descendants of escaped slaves who live in the area. He turns onto a dirt road and we soon catch sight of the first huts.

Many houses lack even such basic fixtures as windows. Evidently, there is nothing to be stolen here. Children are playing soccer, while old people are sitting on porches and near an improvised café. Sunday is a day-off even in this hinterland settlement in the jungles. The Quilombolas objected to the construction of a Ukrainian-Brazilian launch pad on their land near Alcantara. They had an iron-clad argument — the roar of rockets would scare away the spirits and they would leave the holy caves. Quilombolas took the matter to court and, miraculously, won the case. (The land for the rocket base was allotted in a different place.) They are said to have retained professional attorneys who were paid big money. Competition in the space sector can be felt even near the equator.

Europeans, particularly the French, saw the advantages of a launching site located near zero latitude: the Guiana Space Center has been operating in Kourou, French Guiana, since 1968. Alcantara has the potential to be its direct rival.

HIGH-TECH JUNGLE

As we approach the complex, it looks like an ordinary military unit. Following a rigorous ID check, we meet the center’s commander, Col. Ricardo Rodriguez Rangel. They say Rangel was born a pilot. He flies to work every day in virtually any kind of weather. Commuting by ferry from Sao Louis is too slow and inconvenient. The colonel first shows us his facility's pride and joy – the Command and Control Center. The military have been upgrading it recently and now it looks like a set for a Hollywood interstellar flight blockbuster.

Our fingerprints are scanned at the entrance; all around are soundproof glass partitions which can be turned matte in a split second to provide protection from prying eyes. Hundreds of computers, miles of fiber-optics and 480 CCTV cameras on the premises – all of this shows Brazil has not scrimped at all on its rocket program. The country emerged from the financial crisis even stronger than before, outstripping Italy as the world’s seventh largest economy, and now has serious ambitions. “We don’t buy goods; we buy technology” – this slogan is now the national idea in South America's largest country.

Brazilseems destined to develop its own space sector. The equatorial forests in the Amazon are the ideal place for launching spacecraft. Col. Rangel kindly offers me a bird’s eye view at the launching site. Below, Alcantara is a continuous sea of green. To the west, there is not a single city – only impenetrable jungles stretching for hundreds of miles. To the east lies the boundless Atlantic Ocean. Col. Rangel points out that here the spent stages of rockets will not fall down on people’s heads (as has been known to happen near Baykonur. – Ed.). Another advantage is economic: any rocket launched from around the equator can carry 30% more payload, or save up to a third of fuel, compared to those launched in middle latitudes.

THE RIGHT ROCKET FOR THE RIGHT SITE

Braziland Ukraine seem to complement each other perfectly in the Alcantara space project. One has ambitions, the other technology. One has a unique location for the launching site, the other a reliable rocket.

Brazilstarted working on a medium-capacity launcher of its own 40 years ago. A lack of money and knowledge led to modest success. The maximum Brazilian technology can accomplish is lifting probes 150 km high to monitor the Earth’s surface. Brazil designed its own launcher to put satellites in orbit, but it could not get off the ground for many years and when it did get close, it exploded, killing 21 people at the site.

It is virtually impossible to buy space technology now – there is a kind of closed club of countries in the world that possess the know-how, but refuse to share it. After several years of searching for partners, the Brazilians came to the Pivden (Yuzhnoye) Design Bureau in Dnipropetrovsk and laid their eyes on the medium-capacity Cyclone-3 launcher.

Ukraine's Dnipro and Zenit rockets are often launched from Baykonur and Sea Launch. The Cyclone rockets are not as popular. Oleksandr Serdiuk, one of the executives of the Ukrainian-Brazilian Alcantara Cyclone Space Company, points out that the Cyclone-3 has been launched over 200 times without even one accident and thus has arguably the best launch record in the world. However, the leadership of Pivden has had to spend several years to prove that Ukraine can make engines for this rocket on its own, without Russia’s help. Even the brains – the inertial core – had to be completely redesigned.

Why Brazil has chosen Ukraine remains a mystery, but Ukrainian rocket technology may be the answer. The Brazilians are preparing to launch an upgraded Cyclon-4 but are already saying they want to create a new rocket, the Cyclone-5, jointly with our specialists.

BRAZILIAN FLAVOR

The joint Ukrainian-Brazilian Company, or binational company, as it is called here, is headquartered in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, and occupies two floors in a modern office building. The staff is half Brazilian and half Ukrainian (including two chief executives). Only the servants are all locals. Serhiy Filimonov, an assistant to the company’s director, recalls that for a long time Ukrainians resisted the idea of having a waiter in the office until they were told that this is the way things work in Brazil. Filimonov, who has spent several years in Brazil, said he now sees that Brazilians are divided into servants and those who have servants. This does not mean that the former are poor. For example, the woman who brings food to his apartment arrives in her car.

“Ukrainians and Brazilians are alike in some respects,” says Mr. Filimonov. “They take a long time to harness their horses but then they ride fast. Documents may travel from one ministry to another for weeks. One of the most complicated things is to get a construction permit. Licenses are issued by the national environment protection agency which is not subordinated to anyone, not even the president. It was especially hard to obtain a permit to cut down the forest at the future launching site. Eventually, the binational company promised to purchase and plant ten times more palms than it was going to fell.”

WHO WILL PAY THE BILL?

The launch of Cyclone-4 at Alcantara is scheduled for late 2012. The Brazilians are certain they will have everything set up by then, but the Ukrainians are starting to have doubts. Serhiy Malynovsky, a retired general and chief engineer at the construction site, mentions only the main roadblocks. He said that the rainy season, which lasts several months each year, makes earthwork impossible as heavy equipment is simply bogged down in the jungles. Also, there are no quarries near the site. Crushed stone, sand and cement have to be hauled in either by trucks (from 420 km away) or by sea (42 km), which is expensive either way, especially considering that thousands of tons of concrete will be needed. Finally, there is no port nearby that would be able to accommodate a 42-meter-long vessel carrying the rocket. The Brazilians promise to build one, but there is little time left. A backup option is to transport the Cyclone-4 by air. Fortunately, the An-124 (Ruslan) can accommodate the rocket. But the main headache is financing. The construction of the launch facility is being carried out by the binational company, meaning that funds come from both national budgets. Kyiv, however, has recently not been making its payments. Brazil has invested over USD 107 million in the project so far, while Ukraine has put a little over USD 62 million on the table. The disproportion disturbs our partners. President Viktor Yanukovych, who is planning to come to Brazil on a visit in May, may be able to help resolve the problem.

UKRAINIAN CONTRIBUTION

Total commitments – USD 243.6 million

Invested – USD 62.5 million

Amount outstanding – USD 181.1 million

Using Cyclone-4 launchers at Alcantar will bring Ukraine USD 100 million in annual profits

FACT FILE

The French Ongoron I and Ongoron II rockets were test-launched at the Alcantara Launch Center in the 1990s. In 2003, the Brazilian VLS-1 (XV-03) rocket exploded there, killing 21.

In 2003, the first Ukraine-Brazil agreement on launching Ukrainian-made rockets at Alcantara was signed. In 2005, the Brazilian parliament ratified it, and the joint venture Alcantara Cyclone Space was created in 2006. The Pivden Design Bureau and Pivdenmash received government guarantees for a USD 150 million credit line to manufacture carrier rockets and launching site infrastructure. Sixteen Ukrainian companies are involved in the project.

The total budget (financing in equal shares) is around USD 487 million. The project is aimed at putting commercial satellites in orbit with Cyclon-4 launchers.

A tip for travelers

You can pay less for roaming calls by using the TravelSiM service. Incoming calls from Brazil cost USD 0.25 per minute and outgoing calls USD 0.85. The new tariff (for the Travel SiM club users) lets you talk at USD 0.29 per minute inside the TravelSim network in 74 countries and has no flat fees or connection fees. A minimal starting package costs USD 14 and includes USD 5 on your account. Sales points are located in all regions of Ukraine. Additional information about the roaming service can be obtained at www.TravelSі.ua or (044)223-8008.


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