Russia to help Venezuela set up satellite launch site

Sunday, April 04, 2010

A joint announcement by Russia and Venezuela made news today due to its involving nuclear cooperation between Russia and Venezuela, but more interesting is that Russia also intends to help Venezuela set up a fledgling space program of its own, including its own satellite launch capability. Before getting into that, I should note that a jab at the idea by the US State Department was less than helpful:

"We would note that the government of Venezuela was largely closed this week due to energy shortages and to the extent that Venezuela is going to extend resources on behalf of its people, perhaps the focus should be more terrestrial than extraterrestrial."
Apart from the subject of US-Venezuela relations, the statement is unhelpful because it feeds the persistent idea that somehow there's a tiny pool of money that either:

1) all gets used to help people on the ground (building orphanages, buying dry food for cute stray cats, Christmas hams for Timothy Cratchits throughout the country), OR
2) gets crammed into a rocket and sent into orbit. So long health care, education, clean water!

This is, of course, not true. Space exploration is always a tiny investment (usually a few hundred million dollars per year for a mid-sized country) with a large return. So let's keep the diplomatic jabs from perpetuating this myth that the world would be a great place if we just stopped spending money on space.

Now to Venezuela: Venezuela is excellently positioned to launch satellites, as it is at the same latitude as the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, positioned near the equator.

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Russia also has a presence there, and the first Soyuz is expected to launch perhaps in August this year.

So does Venezuela have the economic clout for a space agency? Certainly for a small one, and Malaysia with an economy two-thirds the size of Venezuela's has had a small one since 2002. Argentina (GDP pretty much the same as Venezuela) has one as well. Ideally I would like to see countries this size put all the money into telescopes (both land- and space-based) since the return on investment from that is phenomenal, but that's not too likely to happen.

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