Lax space program management contributed to rocket explosion that

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Lax space program management and underfunding set the stage for a rocket explosion that killed 21 engineers and technicians three days before the scheduled launch last year, according to a report by an investigative commission released Tuesday.

The report on Brazil’s worst space program accident ever ruled out sabotage but confirmed that an electrical flaw triggered one of the VLS-1 VO3 rocket’s four solid fuel boosters while it was undergoing final preparations at the remote seaside launch pad.

The government-appointed commission said it was not able to determine the exact nature of the electrical problem and that further investigation is under way to reach a conclusion

The 130-page report painted a damning picture of the only space program in Latin America and said decisions by government managers long before the Aug. 22 accident led to a breakdown in safety procedures, routine maintenance and training.

Problems at the Alcantara Launch Center in northeastern Brazil, near the equator, included dangerous buildups of volatile gases, deterioration of sensors and electromagnetic interference — all of which posed serious safety hazards, the report said. Space center employees charged with maintaining quality control were overworked and understaffed, it added.

“We observed a lack of formal, detailed risk management, especially in the conduct of operations involving preparations for launch,” the report said.

After releasing the report, Defense Minister Jose Viegas ordered the Air Force, which oversees the space program, to put in place solutions outlined in the report.

Viegas said the program needs US$100 million to be revamped, and that he hopes it can launch a rocket capable of deploying satellites by 2006 — at the end of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s first term.

Brazil’s space program is extremely modest by international standards, and far behind efforts by other developing countries, such as India. The Brazilian program currently gets about US$30 million a year, compared to India’s annual space budget program of US$300 million.

Brazil can’t guarantee that another disaster won’t occur, but Viegas vowed “that we can no longer run the kind of risks we have.”

Relatives of those who died in the accident will hold the government to making the improvements, said Jose Oliveira, president of an association representing the relatives.

“The issue now is whether the government will accept these recommendations,” said Oliveira, who served on the investigative commission. “We are guardedly optimistic that the government will do so.”

Some said the report’s description of wide-ranging problems shows Brazil should take away control of the space program from the military and place it in civilian hands, similar to space programs in the U.S. and Europe.

If the program was funded separately, it wouldn’t be subjected to periodic defense budget cuts, said Francisco Conde, president of the union representing space program workers

“Brazil shouldn’t be just the world’s soybean and coffee supplier forever,” Conde said. “We need modern technology, and space exploration is a window for development of cutting edge technology in many areas.”

Experts believe Brazil will continue its space program because Alcantara, located 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north of Brasilia, is a near-ideal launch site just 2.3 degrees south of the equator. Because the earth’s rotation is faster at the equator, rockets can be launched into space using less fuel and with heavier payloads.

Last year’s accident the space program’s third failure but the first with casualties. In 1997, a rocket launched from Alcantara crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after liftoff. In 1999, officials destroyed a rocket after it veered off course three minutes after takeoff.

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Associated Press Writers Alan Clendenning and Tom Murphy contributed to this report from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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