Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Vector among rocket builders looking to Brazil for equatorial launch site

  • A group of five U.S. private rocket companies met with Brazilian officials in December.
  • Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Vector are interested in launching from the equatorial Alcantara launch complex.
  • The coastal launch site would offer cost savings by its ability to reach orbits often preferred for satellites.
A Vector Space Systems “Vector-R” rocket sits next to a launch tower at the Virginia Space mid-Atlantic regional spaceport (MARS), located on the southern portion of NASA Wallops Island.
Vector Space Systems
A Vector Space Systems “Vector-R” rocket sits next to a launch tower at the Virginia Space mid-Atlantic regional spaceport (MARS), located on the southern portion of NASA Wallops Island.

A group representing five U.S. private rocket companies visited Brazil in December to meet with the nation's space agency and analyze the possibility of launching from the equatorial Alcantara launch complex.

The U.S. Department of Commerce was informed about the trip, which was organized by members of the private space industry. The group met with multiple Brazilian government and military officials and looked at facilities that may be suitable for manufacturing, assembling and launching satellites.

The launch complex on Brazil's northern coast offers an opportunity to launch near the equator, much like the Guiana Space Centre, which is north of the equator in French Guiana.

An equatorial launch complex offers the opportunity to decrease the amount of fuel the rockets need to reach geosynchronous orbits — often the preferred location for satellites — by as much as 20 percent or more, lowering the cost of each launch. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Vector are interested in the cost savings Alcantara may offer to launch satellites.

"Vector is very interested in the opportunity," Vector CEO Jim Cantrell told CNBC, adding that the visit included company representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Microcosm.

"Alcantara has a number of advantages, one of them being its ability to reach geosynchronous orbit. It takes much less fuel to launch from the equator to those orbits," Cantrell said.

Brazil's Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told reporters Thursday the complex may be able to support up to five launch pads, key to multiple companies establishing operations. Both Boeing and Lockheed said in statements that the companies are interested in speaking more to officials in Brazil.

"While there are no formal decisions at this time, we look forward to a continued dialogue," a Lockheed Martin spokesperson told CNBC in a statement. Boeing, which sent two executives on the trip, also said in a statement that the company sees international partnerships as playing an important role as the space industry develops.

"We look forward to Brazil's participation," Boeing said, which is also discussing a potential tie-up with Brazil's Embraer, which manufactures small commercial aircraft and military jets. The government holds a golden share in Embraer, allowing it to veto a deal that would change its controlling interest or involve strategic programs. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC last week that it is "getting closer" to a deal with Embraer that "will satisfy the needs of everybody involved."

SpaceX does not share a continued interest in establishing launch operations at Alcantara, the company told CNBC.

"Reports that SpaceX is interested in launching from Brazil are inaccurate," spokesperson John Taylor said in a statement.

Microcosm, a low-cost rocket venture in Torrance, California, did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Cantrell says the remaining hurdle to a deal with Brazil is the signing of a Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) with the U.S., to protect sensitive information about any rockets exported to Brazil. Under the voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime signed in 1995, Brazil shifted its space program from military to civilian control and put in place laws to protect foreign intellectual property. A TSA signed between the U.S. and Brazil in 2000 was not ratified in the communist-controlled Brazilian Senate, due to concerns of national sovereignty.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Thursday the future of commercial space projects depends on colonizing the moon, as the current administration wants private industry to take the lead on furthering American interests in space. At a meeting of the National Space Council on Tuesday, Ross outlined reforms to deregulate the space industry.

A new window of opportunity may be at hand for cooperation between the commercial space interests of the two governments. Brazilian lawmakers and military officials alike have expressed renewed eagerness to establish a new TSA, matched in turn by the interest of U.S. companies. A non-proliferation agreement with the U.S. may see Brazil become the next step in an increasingly valuable space industry.

Vector is set to launch its first Vector-R rocket into orbit in July, the next major step toward the company's goal of launching more than 100 times per year. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are each working on crewed capsules — one to send astronauts into orbit around the Earth and the other for deep space travel — as well as building satellites and the new Space Launch System rocket for NASA.

— CNBC's Leslie Josephs contributed to this report.