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Shuttle Disaster Could Deal Blow to Japanese Space Program - 2003-02-02

There are fears that Japan's space program will be delayed while the United States investigates the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Tokyo is sending experts to the United States to help with the investigation.

Japanese government officials say the shuttle disaster is a blow to their country's space program. Science minister Atsuko Toyama calls it a major setback, not only for the U.S. space program, but also for the International Space Station project. Japan, with a commitment of more than $2.5 billion, is the second-largest contributor to the space station, after the United States.

Ms. Toyama says Japan will consult with other participating nations to assess the accident's impact on the space station. A team of scientists was leaving Japan for the United States Sunday.

One immediate effect is that the next shuttle mission, scheduled for March 1, is likely to be scrapped. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi was scheduled to be on that flight.

The United States has canceled planned launches while it investigates the Columbia disaster. When the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, it was more than two-and-a-half years before shuttle flights resumed.

The first Japanese astronaut to fly on a shuttle, Mamoru Mori, told reporters at an early morning news conference in Tokyo that he thinks Columbia's break-up could have been the result of excessive mechanical stress when it re-entered the atmosphere. Mr. Mori said that although Columbia was more than 20 years old, the accident is a surprise because shuttles have completed more than 100 re-entries without incident.

The astronaut, who first went into space in 1992, looked saddened as he said he trained with three of those on board the Columbia and knew them well.

Two Japanese school science projects were lost with the Columbia. One experiment involved the growth of protein crystals. The other was investigating the swimming pattern of killifish whose eggs were hatched in space.

Officials say the tragedy will almost certainly delay Japan's plan to launch the experimental Kibo module on board a shuttle and dock it at the space station. The launch was expected to be about three or four years from now.