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Japan Launches First Full-Scale Space Mission - 2002-09-10

Japan's latest space rocket lifted off Tuesday on its first full-scale mission. Tokyo hopes that the move will help Japan win a share of the lucrative international commercial satellite launch industry.

Japan's rocket took off Tuesday from a remote southern island. The 57-meter-long H-IIA rocket, equipped with a two-stage engine and powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, is carrying two satellites into orbit. It is the first mission for the spacecraft after two trial runs over the past two years.

Science and Technology Minister Atsuko Toyama says that through the launch, Japan's space program needs to gain trust and international competitiveness, so she hopes it will succeed.

That sentiment is shared by the nation. More than $500 million of public money has been spent on the new generation rocket, considered the centerpiece of the country's space program.

But the project has suffered from a series of failed launches and has fallen far behind its main rivals - the United States Delta rocket program and European consortium Arianespace.

Japan's National Space Development Agency now hopes to transfer its latest rocket technology to the private sector. It is eager to gain a share of the worldwide commercial satellite launching business and build a more competitive national aerospace industry.

But critics have blasted the plans, saying that cutting the government's growing debt load should take precedence over financing an expensive space program.