RUSSIA had Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. In 2003 China put a man in space. Even India is exploring the heavens: last September an Indian probe began circling Mars. Brazil thinks of itself as the peer of these big emerging economies (all are members of the BRIC grouping). But when it comes to space, its efforts are earth-bound. It has put up just six smallish, non-commercial satellites, four built with Chinese help and launched on Chinese craft.
Brazil’s space programme suffered a blow in July when President Dilma Rousseff scrapped an 11-year-old agreement with Ukraine to launch satellites aboard Ukrainian Cyclone-4 rockets from Brazil’s Alcântara spaceport in the northeastern state of Maranhão. The official explanation implied that the much-delayed project, which had been budgeted at 1 billion reais ($290m), had become too expensive. Brazil may also fear that Ukraine will not fulfil its part of the deal, not least because its space industry is located near Donetsk, which is controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
Brazil started well. In the 1950s and 1960s it sent rockets to the upper atmosphere. Its National Institute for Space Research runs a world-class satellite-testing facility in São José dos Campos, 100km (62 miles) from São Paulo. But Brazil’s attempts to construct its own satellite-bearing rocket were tragically interrupted in 2003, when a prototype exploded in Alcântara hours before a planned launch, killing 21 people.
As hard as rocketry is, space diplomacy is harder. Brazil’s record of sharing know-how with dodgy regimes makes the United States nervous. In the 1980s it helped Iraq double the range of its Scud missiles. The Americans coaxed France and Germany not to share rocket technology with Brazil. In 2000 the then-president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, negotiated an agreement to safeguard American technology, but Congress did not ratify it. His successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, killed it off. Instead, he signed the agreement with the Ukrainians, which offered the protections he denied to the United States.
On her recent trip to the United States Ms Rousseff visited a NASA research centre, prompting speculation that Brazil may again be keen to co-operate. But the Americans won’t budge until safeguards are in place. In the meantime, Russia and France are eyeing Alcântara, one of the world’s best spots from which to lob satellites into orbit (sitting on the equator, it takes full advantage of Earth’s spin).
Brazil’s own extraterrestrial ambitions remain grounded. Even before recent budget cuts, its government planned to devote barely 9 billion reais to space-related activities in 2012-21. Frugal India—whose Mars mission cost less than half what Hollywood spent on the space movie “Interstellar”—spends that much in less than three years. If only Brazil had a nuclear-armed neighbour like Pakistan, muses one senior space bureaucrat. That might spur it to infinity, and beyond.