Twenty-one people died in the explosion of a satellite launch rocket at Brazil's Alcantara space center near here, aeronautics officials confirmed Saturday.
The prototype launch vehicle was being prepared for Monday's launch into orbit of two Brazilian observation satellites when it exploded Friday, incinerating the bodies of the victims and destroying the satellites and launch pad.
The space center in Maranhao state was in total lockdown Saturday, with soldiers barring entry to all unauthorized people. Journalists were instructed to talk to official spokespeople, while grieving relatives complained of receiving minimal information.
The explosion was triggered when one of the rocket's four main thrust engines was unintentionally fired up. The 36-meter(118-foot) platform where the technicians were working disintegrated, officials said.
The remains of only two victims have so far been transfered from the wreckage of the rocket to the Forensic Medical Institute in Sao Luis, due to the extreme degree of incineration of the bodies in the blast.
Victims will be identified by their dental records.
Defense Ministry sources said no injuries were reported. Everyone who had been working on the platform died in the sudden blast.
Almost all the dead were technicians from Sao Joao dos Campos, a city in the state of Sao Paulo which houses a number of aerospace companies.
The technicians were putting in place the final details relating to Monday's scheduled rocket launch.
"The causes of the explosion are going to be the object of an ongoing investigation," an official with the Brazilian Space Agency (FAB) said Saturday.
Early Saturday, Defense Minister Jose Viegas, and Science and Technology Minister Sergio Amaral arrived at the base, along with head of the space agency Luiz Bevilaqcua, from Brasilia.
About 700 people were employed in all at the base on a jungle peninsula on Brazil's Altantic coast.
Some 220 people were working on the launch project. A much smaller team was on the launch platform, erected at a cost of 12 million dollars, at the time of the blast.
The VLS rocket was the third prototype in the series to fail, a spokesman with the Brazilian Space Agency said. The 50-tonne, 19-meter (62-foot) rocket was designed to carry up to 40 tonnes of fuel and cost about 6.5 million dollars.
Rocket launches were aborted for technical reasons shortly after takeoff in 1997 and 1999.
With an orbital range of 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), the rocket was to give Brazil a long-sought entree into the world satellite launch market.
The Alcantara base has been the focus of much media attention following an agreement signed between the government of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) and the United States.
The United States was to make use of part of the Alcantara installations.
The accord still has to be ratified by Brazil's Congress, however, some members of the government of leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as well as local residents, oppose such a move.
A number of demonstrations have been held near the launch center, with local people complaining that Brazilians will not have access to US facilities at the site.
The blast occurred just as the head of the Ukrainian National Space Agency was visiting to sign a bilateral cooperation agreement with Brazil.
The official, Valery Komaro, said the accident would not interfere with the agreement.
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