After doing business with both Saddam Hussein's Iraq and China, Brazil's space program is going back to where it started: NASA.
SAO PAULO — The Brazilian space program was born in 1961 thanks to American support. It never recovered from its demise during the following decade, and it's clearer now than ever that a successful space program can only happen with renewed cooperation with Washington. Which is why Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's visit to NASA this past week was fortuitous.
In the 1960s, NASA indeed trained engineers, sold equipment and transferred propulsion technology and fuel for rockets, on top of providing assistance in the meteorological tests area.
But it all fell apart starting in 1977, when Brazil launched its own rocket construction program, which the Pentagon believed could be diverted to assemble missiles. The fact that Brazil later signed contracts to produce military reconnaissance satellites and missiles with Saddam Hussein's Iraq didn't help either.
The United States imposed commercial sanctions as a result and pressured France and Russia into suspending cooperation contracts they had signed with Brazil. In response, Brazilian authorities by seeking Chinese cooperation for the launch of satellites and invested in construction of satellite launch vehicles (VLS).
But the space program never took off. All three attempts to send a VLS rocket into orbit failed. The last one in 2003 cost 21 lives.
For more than 20 years, it's been clear that the solution to these problems lies in renewing Brazilian cooperation with the United States.
And for that to happen, Brazil has the perfect trump card: the Alcantara Launch Center on the northeastern coast, in the state of Maranhao. The site could be leased in exchange for the recipe necessary to execute the space program that's existed only on paper for so long.
For this project to happen, we need a safeguard agreement with the Americans, who already dominate the global launch market.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to do just that. Negotiations were tough at first. Washington was asking that Brazil nullify its contracts with countries that hadn't signed on to the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would have benefited American companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. They also asked that Brazil abandon the construction of its own launch vehicle.
The American government also presumed to block Brazilian access to their launchers. Brazil's foreign policy mobilized some of its best leaders to try and turn the tables.
In 2000, after months of difficult talks, negotiators finally reached common ground. Brazil would limit its access to American launchers, but in compensation would be allowed to develop its own launch vehicle and decide whether to authorize any demand to use Alcantara for American launches.
But when the agreement came, Workers' Party lawmaker Waldir Pires launched a devastating attack against the plan, denouncing the agreement as a Trojan horse giving the U.S. control over the Alcantara site and an "affront to Brazil's sovereignty." His criticism featured on the front pages of all the newspapers and magazines and was backed by lawmakers from a broad political spectrum, even among some in the then-governing right-wing Social Democracy Party.
Since then, Brazil has tried to resurrect Alcantara in partnership with Ukraine. But the plan petered out because there is simply no viable launch market without a general agreement with the United States.
Everybody in Brazil knows that the future of the space program is entirely dependent on Brasilia and Washington reaching a deal. Now that President Dilma Rousseff has restarted the dialogue, it's about time we launch a whole new series of negotiations.