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News > Latin America

Latin America: A Race for Space

  • Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, the first Latin American to reach space. Mar. 6, 2024.

    Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, the first Latin American to reach space. Mar. 6, 2024. | Photo: X/@_BABACAR

Published 6 March 2024
Opinion

The first space programs in the region were launched in 1960 by the governments of Argentina and Brazil, followed by Mexico, which created an agency in 1962.

In Latin America, such programs are much less developed than in other parts of the world. There are currently some 3,000 satellites in orbit around the Earth, but only 85 of them belong to or are operated by countries in the region.

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Space travel and exploration, as it is known today, began with the launch of the first objects into space in 1957. Since then, many nations have pursued the creation and operation of agencies to achieve what once seemed impossible. However, not as many have been able to fully advance their goals, mainly due to the high cost of developing space technology.

The Soviet Union and the United States were the two great powers during the early stages of space travel, which became known as the space race during the Cold War period. Since then, many other nations have formed space programs, operating satellites, launching facilities and sending people outside the Earth's atmosphere. Today, countries such as China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Iran and the European Space Agency have space programs with vast capabilities and resources. 

The first space programs in the region were launched in 1960 by the governments of Argentina and Brazil, followed by Mexico, which created an agency in 1962. However, despite their longevity, these programs have not achieved worldwide recognition by the space community. While most countries in the region have experienced exponential growth in space technology and development over the past two decades, no country has built orbital launch vehicles or reached full operational capability.

Currently, the only countries in the region that have a space program and have launched satellites into space are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. 

Brazil, which has the most important and developed space program in Latin America, is looking to the future of space missions, preparing, training and collaborating with other countries for a future mission to Mars. The Brazilian Space Agency is supporting a training project that uses the South American country's semi-arid region to simulate the Mars environment. In 2017, the project had logged 65 missions and 30 more were scheduled. To date, 213 people from 29 different countries have contributed to this project. 

Mexico is another country with a strong interest in developing a space race. The first major project of the Mexican government was the deployment of the Morelos satellites in the 1980s to provide communication to rural areas of the country. In the 1990s, students from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) designed and built microsatellites named Solidaridad I and II to replace the Morelos satellites. After a difficult litigation and six years on hold, the Mexican Space Agency was officially created in 2010, under the Ministry of Communications and Transportation. They immediately set about the task of developing state-of-the-art space technology, and thus the D2/AtlaCom-1 nanosatellite projects were born. They are currently developing the NanoConnect-2 nanosatellite, which will be the first of a series of satellites that will position Mexico as a major player in the development of space instruments and applications for lower earth orbit.

Venezuela embarked on the development of the space industry in 2008 with the founding of the Bolivarian Agency for Space Activities (ABAE). ABAE's objective is to manage and develop space policies. The two main projects managed by the agency are the VENESAT-1 -a telecommunications satellite also known as "Simón Bolívar"-, and the VRSS-1 and VRSS-2.42 earth observation satellites.The project was carried out in collaboration with China, which used its launch vehicles to deploy the satellites, entirely of Venezuelan production. 

Current Challenges

One of the most important challenges for Latin American countries is the lack of qualified people to work on their space programs. There are not many recognized and certified educational facilities and curricula. Relatively few people from Latin American countries have achieved successful space careers. Some of the few who have made it into space include the first Latin American astronaut, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba, who participated in the Soviet Soyuz 38 mission in 1980; Rodolfo Neri Vela of Mexico, who was part of the U.S. STS-61-B mission in 1985; and Franklin Chang Diaz of Costa Rica, a physics professor and director of NASA's Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, who participated in seven U.S. space missions.

However, a significant advance was the creation in 2020 of the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE), which seeks to join efforts to have technological freedom that does not make them dependent on other programs. It also seeks to invest in the development of satellites and future important space missions. Space development is an investment in the future that could provide better technology, help education in rural areas, create diverse jobs, attract civil and international capital and provide public support. Today's space programs will define tomorrow's outcomes.

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