Brazilian Astronaut Celebrates Nation's Flight Centennial
Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes (top left) waves a Brazilian flag after he arrived at the ISS with Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov (lower left) and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams (top right). Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur (center) and flight engineer Valery Tokarev welcomed the astronauts aboard on April 1, 2006.
Credit: NASA TV/collectSPACE.com.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) - Brazil's first astronaut, Marcos Pontes, has won the global attention that he feels his country deserved a century ago.

docked with Russian Cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams at the International Space Station on Saturday, dedicated his flight to the memory of Brazilian inventor and aviator Alberto Santos Dumont.

Pontes planned to take with him a Panama hat used by Santos Dumont, the Brazilian who - as all schoolchildren here learn - was said to have invented the airplane but didn't get credit for it.

"At the moment of takeoff, I want to recall that 100 years ago another Brazilian took off, also outside Brazil, in France, for another important mission,'' Pontes told local media in an interview before his Soyuz TMA-8 took off Thursday from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Santos Dumont flew a bamboo-and-silk biplane in Paris on Nov. 12, 1906, and was hailed across Europe as the inventor of the airplane. Brazilians say the Wright brothers cheated by using a takeoff ramp and were helped by a tail wind in their 1903 flight.

But today, Pontes has become the face of Brazilian aeronautics.

The 43-year-old is featured daily on Brazilian TV news broadcasts and in newspaper pages. The Brazilian flag he waved in the capsule is a symbol of pride for Brazil's 185 million people.

"Doing loops around the Earth,'' read a headline in Rio's O Globo newspaper Saturday.

"This is the beginning of a new era for the people of Brazil, we have opened new frontiers with this mission,'' Pontes told Globo TV from the space station. "This is not only a personal dream, it's a realization that can positively impact the Brazilian youth.''

He compared the Earth's view from space to his mother's eyes, which are blue.

"She always said I could achieve anything that I dreamed of,'' Pontes said. "That's the message I want to leave to everybody.''

Born into a poor family in the southeastern city of Bauru, 700 kilometers (425 miles) west of Rio, Pontes helped pay for his studies by working as an electrician's assistant at age 14.

A cadet at the Brazilian Air Force Academy in Pirassununga, Pontes became a fighter pilot in 1984. He did graduate studies in Brazil and at the Johnson Space Center and the Naval Postgraduate School in Pasadena, California.

In 1997, Brazil joined the 15 nations involved in the International Space Station Project. A year later, Pontes was picked for the flight by NASA and the Brazilian Space Agency.

For seven years, Pontes trained for the mission - with some unexpected setbacks.

He was scheduled to fly to the space station aboard a U.S. space shuttle, but NASA suspended shuttle flights after the 2003 Columbia [accident]. Brazil and Russia then discussed whether Pontes could fly aboard a Russian rocket.

In 2003, Brazil's own space program - the only one in Latin America - had an enormous setback when the VLS-1 VO3 rocket carrying two research satellites exploded in a ball of fire three days before its scheduled launch in Alcantara, a base in northeastern Brazil.

Pontes knows the value of persistence.

"When someone gives you a mission, you go to the end,'' he said from the launch site.

He is due to return to Earth on April 8, along with Valery Tokarev of Russia and William McArthur of the United States.