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Rocket Explodes in Brazil, Killing 21

August 23, 2003|Hector Tobar and Paula Gobbi | Times Staff Writers

RIO DE JANEIRO — As many as 21 technicians were killed Friday when a rocket that would have made Brazil the first space power in Latin America exploded on the launch pad, officials said.

The explosion in the equatorial city of Alcantara also injured about two dozen technicians as they prepared for the launch, in what was this South American country's third attempt to send a rocket into space and enter the lucrative international aerospace market.

The VLS-3 rocket had been scheduled to blast off as early as Monday, with satellites developed by Brazil's National Space Research Institute.

"The Ministry of Defense laments profoundly the explosion of the third prototype of the VLS rocket," an official statement said. "The circumstances of the accident are being investigated with the necessary rigor and speed."

Through a spokesman, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said his country's space program would press ahead despite the disaster.

"The Brazilian space program ... is in mourning today," Lula spokesman Andre Singer said. "In this moment, as Brazil pays tribute to those workers at Alcantara base, the Brazilian government reaffirms its commitment to continue the effort to provide Brazil with its own space technology."

The president's office gave a death toll of 16, but an air force official later said that 21 bodies had been recovered.

Globo television showed hazy, distant images of a plume of smoke rising over the jungle base on Brazil's northern coast, 150 miles south of the equator. The location is considered ideal for space launches because less fuel is required to send a craft into space the closer it is to the equator, because it gets a boost from the Earth's substantial rotational speed there.

In June, Brazil signed an agreement with Ukraine to launch that country's Cyclone rockets from the Alcantara base.

Friday's explosion marked Brazil's third failed attempt at building and launching its own space vehicle. Brazil has long been a successful exporter of commercial aircraft and has sought for two decades to expand into the $60-billion annual market for satellite launches.

In 1997, engine problems shortly after liftoff caused the VLS-1 to crash into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1999, the VLS-2 was destroyed by remote control when it malfunctioned three minutes after liftoff.

Plans for a third attempt have been hampered, in part, by the Brazilian government's budget crisis.

Defense Minister Jose Viegas said Friday's accident unfolded when one of the rocket's four engines ignited suddenly.

"There was an explosion, and the launch platform collapsed," Viegas said. All the dead were civilian workers with the Center for Aeronautical Technology.

No work was being done on the rocket itself at the time of the explosion, officials said. On Wednesday, technicians had performed the last run-through for the liftoff.

The VLS-3 was to have launched a pair of satellites, both of which were destroyed.

"We cannot bury this program," said Luiz Bevilacqua, the Brazilian Space Agency chief. "On the contrary -- the ideal thing would be to strengthen our resolve and intensify our efforts."

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Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and Gobbi from Rio de Janeiro.

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