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Rocket Launch Raises Hopes for Japanese Space Industry - 2001-08-31

Japan's successful launch of a new rocket this week has raised hopes for building a Japanese space industry for both commercial and intelligence gathering purposes. Experts say Japan still has much to prove before it can gain international credibility in the satellite launching business.

Japan's aerospace triumph came after several costly and embarrassing failures. On Wednesday (29 August 2001), the country's next generation H-2A rocket blasted off from Tanegashima Space Center, 1,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. About 40 minutes later, it successfully placed a dummy test satellite into orbit.

The launch of the 53-meter orange and black rocket was viewed as critical to the survival of Japan's space program, which suffered after several launch failures. In 1998, controllers at Japan's National Space Development Agency had to intentionally explode a rocket in air to keep it from careening off course.

Atsutaro Watanabe is the director of Japan's H-2A rocket program. He says that controllers applauded gleefully Wednesday after they received confirmation that the new rocket had fulfilled its mission. "We are very satisfied, and we are also relieved," he said. "We experienced two failures with H-2A's predecessor, the H-2. This is the first launch of the new vehicle. In general the success rate for the new launch is not very high. Before the launch we had a lot of pressure."

There were concerns that another failure would doom Japan's space program, which costs taxpayers about $2 billion a year. Shuichiro Yamanouchi, director of Japan's space agency, told reporters that this launch has helped the program regain the confidence of the Japanese people.

Paul Kallendar covers the Japanese space industry for the Electrical Engineering Times, a U.S.-based publication. He says that despite the success, Japan must continue to prove that this spacecraft will launch effectively time and time again. "This launch was a great showcase of Japanese technology in one sense. In a larger sense, however, the rocket still remains unproven," he said. "One successful launch does not make that rocket reliable. It will have to launch three, four or five times in a row before commercial satellite makers would consider it to be a strong candidate as a commercial launcher."

In fact, Japan's space agency lost contracts for 18 satellite launches from two American satellite makers after its failures of the past three years.

It is hoping to regain a share of the global satellite-launching business over the next few years. The business is currently dominated by Europe's Ariane rockets, with the United States, China and Russia also competing for business.

Experts such as Mr. Kallendar say that to become a player, Japan must continue to revamp its rocket program. It has already made significant changes. It backed away from a "made in Japan" approach to its spacecraft, which had put a huge price-tag on the H-2. With the H-2A, it streamlined the rocket and imported some parts from overseas. That brought costs down to about $70 million for Wednesday's launch, making it comparable to many launch sites around the world.

Analysts say Japan has a good chance of competing in the market if the launches of two rockets scheduled for January and February next year go well.

Mr. Kallendar notes that Japanese companies are also vying for the chance to participate in manufacturing satellites. "Mitsubishi Electric is aggressively redeveloping how they make satellites," he said. "They have a whole new satellite building system and they are aiming to become a commercial satellite developer. Toshiba and NEC have also joined forces and they may be able to compete in a few years. It is still a big unknown."

Aside from financial incentive, Japan is eager to revitalize its space program for security purposes. It wants to be able to launch satellites for intelligence gathering. Security experts say it is especially concerned about potential threats from North Korea, which test fired a medium range missile over Japan in 1998, sending a political shock wave around the region.