April 20, 2006

Lula greets Brazil’s astronaut, defends space costs

By Natuza Nery

BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil's first astronaut was
given a hero's welcome home on Thursday by President Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva, who called the mission a triumph for the
developing country despite its costs.

He rejected criticisms that Brazil cannot afford costly,
ambitious exploits. Latin America's largest country has one of
the most unequal income distributions in the world and millions
of people live in poverty.

"What we have spent to send you there was little compared
to what you have come to represent for Brazil," Lula told Air
Force pilot Marcos Pontes during a welcoming ceremony in the
presence of ministers and top military brass.

The Presidential Guards' band, dressed in white and red
uniforms, played the national anthem to greet Pontes, who
returned to Earth on April 9, landing on Kazakhstan's steppes
after a 10-day trip, and then spent some time in Russia
readapting to gravity.

Brazil paid $10 million to send Pontes, 43, to the
International Space Station aboard a Russian spacecraft, which
made critics liken him to millionaire "space tourists" who pay
up to double that price for space trips.

But Lula brushed aside the criticism, saying the space
journey had paid off with the knowledge gained from experiments
Pontes made in orbit and the symbolic value of his presence in
space for Brazil. Astronauts from Latin American countries
Cuba, Mexico and Costa Rica made space trips in the 1980s.

Responding to media comments that his experiments were
rudimentary, Pontes said: "I took the experiments seriously and
I think they have their scientific value."

A corpulent, grey-bearded Lula told Pontes he himself
wanted to go to space: "I'd like to be in your place. I know
I'm not fit for it ... but who knows, maybe one day when they
start taking senior citizens there, I may go," Lula said.

Lula said Brazil was not that far behind other countries in
space technology and defended research in other strategic

"There are people who think we should not spend money on
that (space trips). There are people who think we should not
spend money on our submarine, there are those who think we
should not handle the uranium issue," Lula said.

In 2004, Brazil launched its own uranium enrichment plant,
putting it in a group of nations possessing a full range of
nuclear capabilities from mining to fuel-making.

The plant opening followed a year of tough talks over
nonproliferation inspections as Brazil struggled to protect its
technological know-how in the area. The country operates two
nuclear power reactors. Nuclear weapons research is banned by
the Brazilian Constitution.

The country has also long been seeking to build a
nuclear-powered submarine.

Lula's comments on nuclear research come as Washington and
Tehran remain at an impasse over Iran's own uranium enrichment
plant, which the United States suspects could produce
weapons-grade uranium. Iran insists the uranium is for its
peaceful nuclear power program, like Brazil's.