TCS Daily

Barbosa's Flight

By James Pinkerton - April 24, 2002 12:00 AM

PARIS - One of the most important space-players in the world today is a Brazilian, Marcio Nogueira Barbosa, the president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), headquartered here. And if most Americans haven't heard of either the man or the group, that could start to change later this year, when Barbosa and the IAF convene the World Space Congress in Houston on Oct. 10. While Americans, having won the space race to the moon more than three decades ago, mostly snooze through the news from the space-frontier, the rest of the world is catching up. As Barbosa says in an interview, "We missed the chance to go to the moon. But one day we'll go to Mars."

Barbosa himself has an interesting story. Born in 1951, the 18-year-old engineering student was deeply moved by the Apollo 11 moon landing as he watched it live in Rio de Janeiro. Coming to America for further study, he had his personal space-epiphany came in 1974, when he visited the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There he saw the wondrous information coming from NASA's Earth Resources Technology Satellite, better known as Landsat. The first ground-observing satellite had been launched two years before; by the time Barbosa saw its product at Goddard, Landsat had transmitted over 100,000 images covering 75 percent of the earth's land surface.

"It was so obvious," Barbosa recalls, "that we needed this to track natural resources, land and water." Brazil, the fifth-largest country in the world, some 3.3 million square miles, is mostly under-surveyed. And scientists need to know much more about the two huge bodies of water--the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean-that dominate its geography. "If I had been born in Luxembourg," he jokes, "I might not have felt so strongly about space satellites."

His determination to bring the benefits of space technology back home to Brazil was strengthened by a serendipitous meeting on that same American sojourn with the legendary Wernher Von Braun. Although the great rocket pioneer, then in his sixties, was just two years away from his own death, he still brimmed with enthusiasm for space. The German-American took the young Brazilian to dinner in Washington DC, filling him with him ideas for improving earth by going to space.

In particular, Barbosa recalls, Von Braun preached the importance of engineering--specifically, building up a home-grown cadre of qualified engineers, who could work on space projects and other projects as well. This has been the key economic spinoff from the Brazilian space program, he believes.

Barbosa took charge of the National Institute for Space Research, known by its Portuguese acronym of INPE, in 1989. His first focus was putting aloft the Brazilian equivalent of Landsat; to date, four Brazilian orbiters have been launched, two by the United States and two by China. Indeed, the Brazilians are allocating the resources needed to be competitive space players; Barbosa notes that his country spends about $250 million a year on space, about the same amount as Canada.

And while efforts to build a Brazilian launcher have met with disappointment so far, a significant space complex has emerged at Alcantara, on Brazil's Northeast Atlantic coast. The country has a geographical blessing, after all--actually three of them: location, location, location. Alcantara is just two degrees south of the Equator. Such a locale is hugely significant, space-wise; the faster rotation of the earth at the world's midriff makes it cheaper to put a rocket aloft.

In the meantime, a continuing close connection to the US has paid off as well. "We are the only developing country partnering in the International Space Station," Barbosa notes with pride. Moreover, Marcos Pontes, a major in the Brazilian Air Force, is currently in space-training in the US. He expects to be aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station in 2003.

Barbosa left the Brazilian space program in 2001 to become Assistant Director-General of the UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. But his astrothusiasm continues; last December he helped pull together a major conference on space issues, detailed here at Pinkertonspace [link, if you wish, to JPP column dated 12/19/01 or so].

So while spacefaring serves many agendas, from national security to international communication, Barbosa, as befits a UN official, is now most focused on its potential for providing earthly benefits. "We go to space to find solutions to the earth's problems. ... Sustainable development worldwide is the critical issue for me," he declares. Beyond his own experience in Brazil, he points to other countries and continents that could benefit from more intensive space-based reconnaissance, such as Canada, Russia, and Africa. "And it could also be a vital part of peace processes," he adds.

Barbosa's vision is sure to get more attention in Houston this October, at the World Space Congress. The sponsoring group, the Paris-based LIAFis a non-governmental organization, with 161 members, ranging from the Argentine Academy of Space Sciences to the Volvo Aero Corporation, in 45 countries. Over the course of nine days, October 10-19, some 370 sessions will cover everything from natural disaster reduction to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence; for more details, see Luminaries expected to be in attendance include UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that Houston's own George W. Bush won't find a way to participate.

The purpose of the conference, Barbosa says, is to "gain again a moment of recognition" for humanity's space program as it enters its second century. That's important, not just because of all the sustainable-development issues that he cites, but also because other countries and entities are now moving aggressively into space. The European Union, for example, intends to go ahead with Galileo, its 30-satellite plan to create a Global Positioning System to rival America's. And China hopes to put an astronaut in space in the next few years. And of course, Barbosa makes no secret of his more romantic space-dream as well; he wants to be part of the effort that puts people not just on the moon, but on Mars.

Barbosa, the proper international bureaucrat, is right to emphasize the tangible terrestrial benefits of space. But Barbosa, the spacenik, knows that the lift of his driving dream isn't just about making the world a better place; it's also about bringing humanity up to new places that so far we have only dreamed about.

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