SAO LUIS, Brazil (AP) – Smoke rose from a crater littered with twisted metal at Brazil’s space center Saturday, one day after a rocket explosion killed 21 people in the country’s latest attempt to launch Latin America’s first satellite.

The 66-foot-high VLS-1 VO3 rocket was three days from its scheduled liftoff when it blew up on its launch pad. Twenty people were injured in the accident, which left South America’s largest country mourning the victims and struggling to understand what went wrong.

Friday’s blast at the seaside Alcantara Launch Center in northeastern Brazil, near Sao Luis, killed mostly civilian technicians and destroyed two research satellites, dealing a serious blow to Brazil’s nascent space program.

“The president of the Republic profoundly regrets the deaths of the workers at the Alcantara base. The Brazilian space program is an important scientific and technological project for our country and today is a day of mourning,” presidential spokesman Andre Singer said.

Gov. Jose Reinaldo Tavares, of remote Maranhao state where the accident happened, declared three days of mourning for the victims of Brazil’s first deadly space program disaster.

A defect in the ignition system of one of the rocket’s four solid fuel boosters caused the explosion, though the accident was still under investigation.

“Investigations about the causes of the accident are continuing and we are in the process of identifying the bodies,” Air Force Maj. Gustavo Kruger said by telephone from the Alcantara rocket base.

No more dead were thought to be among the wreckage, but the identification process was complicated because the bodies were badly charred, Kruger said.

The rocket, which was to carry two small research satellites, had just successfully completed two days of tests and was standing by for lift off Monday when it exploded. The intense heat from the fire melted the enormous steel structure, causing the entire launch pad to collapse.

It is very difficult to ignite a solid fuel rocket. NASA uses two mortar shells to ignite each of the U.S. space shuttle’s solid fuel boosters, said James Oberg, a former space shuttle engineer at Mission Control in Houston. He speculated the investigation would focus on what set off the explosive charge.

Oberg, also the author of 12 books about space flight, said some 90 Russians died in a launch pad accident in 1960, and 50 Russians died in another pad explosion in 1980.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences by telegram Saturday to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Our country, which has learned from experience what a high price has at times had to be paid for mankind’s technological progress, including in space exploration, especially understands the anguish of such losses,” Putin said.

The accident marked Brazil’s third failure.

In 1997, a rocket crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after liftoff. In 1999, officials had to destroy a rocket after it veered off course three minutes after takeoff.

The Alcantara base is considered a near-ideal launch site because of its location, just 2.3 degrees south of the equator. The Earth moves faster at the equator, which helps propel rockets into space with up to 13 percent less fuel, allowing heavier payloads.

Brazil is currently negotiating with the United States and the Ukraine to allow use of the base to launch their rockets.

AP-ES-08-23-03 1454EDT

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