BRASILIA, Brazil, Apr 20 (Reuters) Brazil's first astronaut was given a hero's welcome home today by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who called the mission a triumph for the developing country despite its costs.
He rejected criticisms that Brazil cannot afford costly, ambitious exploits. Latin America's largest country has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world and millions of people live in poverty.
''What we have spent to send you there was little compared to what you have come to represent for Brazil,'' Lula told Air Force pilot Marcos Pontes during a welcoming ceremony in the presence of ministers and top military brass.
The Presidential Guards' band, dressed in white and red uniforms, played the national anthem to greet Pontes, who returned to Earth on April 9, landing on Kazakhstan's steppes after a 10-day trip, and then spent some time in Russia readapting to gravity.
Brazil paid 10 million dollars to send Pontes, 43, to the International Space Station aboard a Russian spacecraft, which made critics liken him to millionaire ''space tourists'' who pay up to double that price for space trips.
But Lula brushed aside the criticism, saying the space journey had paid off with the knowledge gained from experiments Pontes made in orbit and the symbolic value of his presence in space for Brazil.
Astronauts from Latin American countries Cuba, Mexico and Costa Rica made space trips in the 1980s.
Responding to media comments that his experiments were rudimentary, Pontes said: ''I took the experiments seriously and I think they have their scientific value.'' A corpulent, grey-bearded Lula told Pontes he himself wanted to go to space: ''I'd like to be in your place. I know I'm not fit for it ... but who knows, maybe one day when they start taking senior citizens there, I may go,'' Lula said.
Lula said Brazil was not that far behind other countries in space technology and defended research in other strategic spheres.
''There are people who think we should not spend money on that (space trips). There are people who think we should not spend money on our submarine, there are those who think we should not handle the uranium issue,'' Lula said.
In 2004, Brazil launched its own uranium enrichment plant, putting it in a group of nations possessing a full range of nuclear capabilities from mining to fuel-making.
The plant opening followed a year of tough talks over nonproliferation inspections as Brazil struggled to protect its technological know-how in the area. The country operates two nuclear power reactors. Nuclear weapons research is banned by the Brazilian Constitution.
The country has also long been seeking to build a nuclear-powered submarine.
Lula's comments on nuclear research come as Washington and Tehran remain at an impasse over Iran's own uranium enrichment plant, which the United States suspects could produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran insists the uranium is for its peaceful nuclear power program, like Brazil's.
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