Space… the Border at Last?

Article written by Eduardo Marson Ferreira, president of Fundação Ezute, for Revista Força Aérea (Air Force Magazine – October\2017)

In a recent presentation at the monthly meeting of COMDEFESA of FIESP*, my master Anastácio Katsanos gave the audience a brilliant lecture on the evolution of the space market in the world, which revolves  around something like US$323 billion per year. There was no proposal at any time to analyze the current state of things in the sector in Brazil, but the lecture was no less impactful to all the Brazilians present.

It became clear that the market of access to space dominated by spacecraft has had three drivers since the 1940s and 1950s: first of all, strong state leadership through agencies like NASA in the USA and its counterparts in the former USSR and in Europe; already at the end of the 20th century, the destinations of the market were dictated by large users, such as mass communication companies of voice, data and images, like Iridium, Inmarsat and Google. Now, the third wave is dominated, behold, by the so-called venture capital or private capital willing to run high levels of risk!

Up to 5 or 10 years ago, the names of the investors Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos were known respectively as PayPal, Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic, and Amazon Books. Paul Allen was just the former partner of Bill Gates at Microsoft. They were!

Elon Musk and his Space X, a revolutionary first-stage reusable launch vehicle, enabled the cost of putting satellites into orbit to decrease. Ten years ago when he declared that he would do this, the space community laughed at the entrepreneur. Today, after several successful launches, including one with 20 satellites on board, the simultaneous launch of three spacecraft from different sites is now in the planning stage. His business plan predicts a launch every 15 days!!! Any doubts now that he will be able to this?

The dyslexic Richard Branson decided to fly higher than his Boeing of Virgin Altantic Airways and launched the race for space tourism. Despite a fatal accident with the first prototype of his jet launched from an airplane, the White Knight II, he will soon be taking some lucky people into the stratosphere. In the future, he plans to run trips to the Moon and Mars, the same path taken by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

Now Paul Allen has decided to join two Boeing 747s in a single structure, and in some years, intends to launch satellites from this platform at a much lower cost than a traditional artifact. With this superplane, he could fly up to the Equator and launch the rocket with the satellite in the more efficient longitude to enter into orbit, ending the competitive advantage of sites of traditional launch like Kourou and… Alcântara!

Brazil kicked off its space program at the end of the 1950s, more or less at the same time as India and North Korea. Although we had important advances, the comparison with these other countries gives an ultimate ruling on the lack of priority that the industry has in our country: India today, after having developed and launched satellites of various sizes as well as a launch vehicle, is about to put a human into orbit; we do not need to comment on what the Koreans have achieved, their intercontinental missile protagonizing global TV networks on a daily basis.

From the point of view of the industry, the focal point of this column is that we expect over time, despite the ups and downs, to build a minimal Industrial Space Base, with various manufacturers pulverized and gravitating around the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE – National Institute of Space Research) and the Departamento de Ciência e Tecnologia Aeroespacial (DCTA – Department of Aerospace Science and Technology). Satellite programs like the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) and the Multimission Platform (PMM) created a small network of suppliers and integrators of subsystems, and more recently, the SGDC gave us a more robust integration methodology.

The industry, good or bad, exists! However, in a country with strong state interventionism, as in the cases of developed countries in the 1950s, the industry expects to know where to go. However, the Brazilian State itself does not seem to know what to do with a sector of strategic and technological importance. Note that I said Brazilian State: because access to space and to the services originating from it to the population, in areas such as agriculture, meteorology, navigation, disaster aid, territorial planning, geoprocessing or defense, neither can nor should be the only program of this or that government.

The dichotomy, many times Manichean, of the simultaneous existence of a civil and a military program of access to space, with the natural dispute for the limited budget, puts us forever on hold. Urgent convergence is needed of national interests of the space sector at the highest level of the Republic, to become a true State program, forgetting the biases and disagreements of the past through robust governance. A Brazilian Space Program should be, before anything else, an element of national unity around a common objective.

We have already lost too much time. Soon, the equatorial advantage of Alcântara will be supplanted by Allen’s Boeing. It will be better to build a 4-km runway for superplanes in Maranhão than launch pads to try to capture a share of the business!

Either we all converge now, State, academia and industry, in a common project, or we risk seeing the likes of Richard Branson shaping the destiny of our access to space and all the wealth that comes, or may come, with it. After all, it’s not by chance that there should be such a precedence of Venture “CAPITAL” in the industry…

*Departamento da Indústria de Defesa da Federação das Indústrias do Estado de São Paulo (Department of the Defense Industry of the Federation of Industries for the State of São Paulo)

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