Brazil News and Views

Ready for Blast-Off: The Next Steps for the Alcântara Launch Center

On Monday Michael and I had a unique and very educational experience. We were given the opportunity to attend a seminar put on by the government of the state of Maranhão on the next steps for the development of the Alcântara Launching Center.

Now before going on, you might want to read this post for context. For the tl:dr crowd, I’ll summarize: last month, in his first official visit to the US, President Bolsonaro signed an agreement that would open up the Alcântara Launch Center to US companies wanting to send satellites into space.

As a reminder, this is relevant to our ministry because the ALC is just a couple miles from us, as the crow flies.

The participants in the seminar were a “who’s who” of prominent citizens of Maranhão, but by far the most distinguished guests were our governor, Flávio Dino, and Brazil’s Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Marcos Pontes – who also happens to be the first (and, to date, only) Brazilian astronaut (Check out my post from 13 years ago on his historic trip to space).

Governor Flávio Dino (hands folded), and Astronaut Marcos Pontes (to the left of the governor)

The Sovereignty Issue

Since the signing of the accord there has been a fair amount of concern that it might in some way infringe on Brazilian ownership of the ALC. During the conference itself a Brazilian friend posted a comment on one of my pictures, asking if the governor was in favor of “handing over the base to the Americans”. At the center of the controversy is a “safeguard” clause designed to prevent American space technology from falling into foreign hands.

Minister Pontes made it abundantly clear throughout the presentation that there was absolutely no surrendering of Brazilian sovereignty in the deal, explaining the “safeguard” clause over and over.

What to do with the Quilombos?

The rural area immediately surrounding the ALC is home to several Quilombo communities. Quilombos are predominantly afro-Brazilian communities, some of them dating back to groups of escaped slaves. These communities have been afforded special rights by the Brazilian government. Should the base need to expand, it could potentially cause a conflict. This issue actually caused the only heated exchanges of the day.

The assembled dignitaries did their best to convince those gathered at the conference that there would be no need for the base to expand in the foreseeable future.

Make Low-Orbit Satellites, not War

Another point of concern for many Brazilians is the supposed possibility that the US might use the base as a launching pad for missiles. The authorities present repeatedly pointed to the clause in the agreement that expressly forbids this.

An Interesting Dynamic

Governor Flávio Dino is a leftist. Not the pink, leftism-lite of ex President Lula…no, he is a member of the PC do B, the Communist Party of Brazil. He’s not at all shy about it either. Here he is at this year’s Carnaval celebration, for example. Notice the hammer and sickle. (source)

All this puts him in direct conflict with Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is wont hoist a Brazilian banner and shout “This flag will never be red!” Former astronaut Marcos Pontes is a minister in Bolsonaro’s government. I was very interested to see how Mr. Dino would respond to this great opportunity which has been afforded our region due to the policies of a president he despises.

During the proceedings the governor and Mr. Pontes were very cordial, joking about each other’s weight. At one point Flávio Dino took a dig at one of Bolsonaro’s less popular policies, and Pontes chuckled…and didn’t bite. But Flávio Dino is obviously happy with the possibility of the mega-investments that the space project will bring to his state, even going so far as to say that his administration and the federal administration were “partners” in this project. He couldn’t bring himself to say Bolsonaro’s name (indeed, I never heard it mentioned once during the entire event), but it was obvious that’s what he meant.

It will be interesting to see, as time progresses and the project begins to bear fruit, if Flávio Dino and his red cohorts will have the courage to give credit to Bolsonaro…or Trump!

The Potential

It is hard to underestimate the potential growth this agreement brings to our region. Ever since a tragic accident in 2003 (I may write something about that later) the Alcântara space program has been virtually in mothballs, only sending up the occasional test rocket – nothing that goes beyond the atmosphere, and nothing approaching the real potential of the installation. An active base, run by the Brazilian military and open to US companies, would bring both public and private sector jobs to the city of Alcântara, the capital city of São Luís (just across the bay), and to our entire state.

For our churches, this would have a “rising tide lifts all ships” effect. It could also open up opportunities for ministry on an international scale.

A Personal Note

Many of our readers are aware of Michael’s interest in astronomy and space technology. Yesterday was a big day for him.

Michael is seventeen now, and beginning to look at what he wants to do with his life. The ALC project has the potential to allow him to pursue his passion, professionally, right in his own backyard.

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