| The rocket before it exploded at the Alcantara base in Brazil. (Reuters)
Brasilia (Brazil), Aug. 23 (Reuters): A Brazilian rocket exploded yesterday and killed 21 people after an engine ignited by mistake days before a planned lift-off from a jungle launch site.
The disaster ended Brazil’s third attempt to fulfill a long-held dream of becoming a space power.
Another 20 people were seriously wounded in the explosion, which sent a huge plume of smoke into the air above the tropical headland jutting into the Atlantic Ocean where the Alcantara launch base is situated.
“Nineteen people died and there are about 20 seriously wounded,” said Raimundo de Souza, a public security spokesman for the northeastern state of Maranhao.
In Brasilia, defence minister Jose Viegas said “apparently” 16 were killed but a full count was not yet ready.
Viegas said the explosion was caused when one of the rocket’s four engines ignited by mistake. The blast was heard dozens of kilometres away in the town of Sao Luis. “The president profoundly laments the death of the officials at the Alcantara base,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s spokesman said.“Brazil’s space programme, an important scientific programme for our country, is today in mourning.”
Nearly 800 people were preparing the $6.5 million, 20-metre rocket for its scheduled launch next week. The unmanned rocket was to have carried two satellites into space.
Officials said the rocket was going through final tests till August 24, after which it would have been ready to start the launch sequence at any point. It was sitting in a large structure on the launch pad when the accident happened at 1630 GMT.
Brazil had been hoping to make the first successful venture into space by a Latin American nation. Rockets launched by Brazil in 1997 and 1999 were destroyed shortly after lift-off because of technical problems.
Experts worked since the beginning of July to assemble the so-called Satellite Launch Vehicle. The rocket was to have transported two small satellites, carrying positioning equipment, a communications transmitter and energy source.
They were to have been released into low orbit about 750 km above the Earth less than eight minutes after blast-off.
The launch pad is situated in a heavily guarded section of the huge space base equipped with ambulances and fire engines.
The base is a central part of Brazil’s space programmes, which were initiated a generation ago by the country’s then military rulers.
In recent years the programmes have suffered from underfunding, which the new government has sought to correct.
“The government wants to reaffirm its efforts for Brazil to have its own space technology,” Singer said. First word of the accident reached Brasilia at the same time as the head of the Brazilian Space Agency was holding a news conference with his Ukrainian counterpart about a deal to launch Ukrainian Cyclone rockets from Alcantara.
“This sad accident should not and will not influence relations between Brazil and Ukraine,” said Valeriy Komarov, the head of the Ukrainian Space Agency.