Mexico Gets a Space Agency

Mexico's congress this week voted by a huge majority to create a new national space agency which could someday launch rockets from the Yucatan peninsula.

The Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEXA), as the Mexican NASA is being called, won't be sending astronauts into space or even building its own rockets. Instead, backers say the goal is to help Mexico develop a space policy and stimulate investment in aerospace technology. The idea "is to choose technologies where Mexico can invest and develop expertise" so that in 10 years the country can catch up with nations such as Brazil and Canada, Fernando de la Peña, an engineer involved in the project, told EFE.

Mexican scientists backed the plan, but the biggest boost may have come from NASA astronaut José Hernández, a U.S. citizen with Mexican roots who has flown on the shuttle Discovery and who lobbied for the creation of the agency. Hernández told Mexico's El Universal that "to avoid brain drain, I think Mexico should create opportunities like AEXA to wager on the academic and technological development of our country." AEXA will be headquartered in the state of Hidalgo; plans also call for a launch pad in an unpopulated region of the Yucatan.

Only one Mexican-born astronaut has ever been in outer space, Mexican papers said. Rodolfo Neri Vela, a mechanical engineer, flew on the Atlantis shuttle in 1985 and stayed 7 days in space.

Among the many challenges ahead for Mexico's space program is money. The initial financing for the project is just $800,000. AEXA's backers said they expect this will grow to an annual budget of about $8 million.