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Rocket for third orbital flight explodes:

Brazil's Difficult Road to Space

VLS rocket at Alcantara launch site
Veiculo Lancador de Satelites (VLS) at Alcantara
click to enlarge AEB image
Brazil's third attempt to launch satellites to space using its first family of Veiculo Lancador de Satelites (VLS) rockets exploded August 22, 2003.

The launchpad explosion outside the equatorial city of Alcantara killed 21 engineers and technicians. Two satellites were destroyed.

A successful launch of its VLS would have given Brazil the honor of being the first Latin American nation able to send its own satellites to orbit.

Three Attempts

  • The VLS-1 VO1 engine failed during liftoff in 1997 and the rocket splashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

  • The VLS-1 VO2 rocket was destroyed by remote control by the range safety officer during liftoff in 1999 when it malfunctioned three minutes into its flight.

  • The VLS-1 VO3 rocket that exploded on the pad in 2003 was Brazil's third attempt to send a rocket to orbit.
  • The 66-ft. VLS-1 launchers use solid-fuel rocket boosters. The VLS-1 VO3 rocket had completed two days of flight preparation and was standing upright on the launch pad.

    The launcher was three days from its scheduled trip to space when fire appeared around the four solid-fuel boosters at the bottom of the upright rocket. The VLS exploded on the launch pad.

    Intense heat during the explosion melted the large steel support gantry surrounding the rocket. That collapsed the entire launch pad, a major blow to Brazil's space program.

    The two small science satellites lost in the VLS-1 VO3 explosion had been developed by Brazil's National Space Research Institute.

    Jungle base. The seaside Alcantara spaceport is carved out of the jungle 150 miles south of the equator on Brazil's northeast coast. The base is in the state of Maranhao some 25 miles from the city of Sao Luiz and accessible only by plane, helicopter and boat. Rocket scientists say Alcantara is well placed for space launches because its proximity to the equator requires less fuel to loft a rocket to orbit.

    The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) also has plans to launch rockets and satellites from Alcantara for other nations, including the U.S., Russia and China: Mourning. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told his mourning nation that, despite the VLS-1 VO3 disaster, the space program would keep on trying. Maranhao state Gov. Jose Reinaldo Tavares declared three days of mourning.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences to the Brazilian people. His nation had experienced the loss of many personnel in launch pad explosions – 90 in a blast in 1960 and 50 in an explosion in 1980.

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