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Japan's Space Program Suffers Setbacks - 2004-08-02


When Japan, in 1970, became the fourth nation to place a satellite into Earth orbit there were high hopes the country would evolve into a power dedicated to the peaceful use of space. But since then, even as the country rose to become the world's second largest economy, the space program has foundered.

Rocket launches are still anything but routine in Japan. The Japanese space program in recent years has suffered a series of accidents.

All too often, mission control has broadcast dreaded announcements that yet another rocket has failed.

In some areas of space exploration, such as X-ray and radio astronomy, space plasma and solar physics, Japan is considered second to none. But its efforts to actually go into outer space have not been as successful.

Last year, Japan's first interplanetary explorer, after a five-year journey, failed to make it into orbit around Mars. The centerpiece of its space program, the H-II series of liquid fuel rockets, has suffered repeated launch failures.

Yasunori Motogawa, the associate executive director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, argues for saving the H-IIA, the latest version of the rocket, despite pressure from bureaucrats, politicians and those in his own agency who want to scrap it and go with a cheaper launch vehicle.

"I think it's wrong planning from the standpoint of joining the space world market," he said. "H-IIA must be developed into one of the best vehicles by improving the probability of launch success. It must be launched tens and hundreds of times like Soyuz rocket, Delta II rocket."

Regardless of the rockets it chooses, critics say Japan's space program has to focus its ambitions and reduce cost over-runs. After several spacecraft failures over the past few years, the government put all mission launches on hold, while it studies its space programs.

Aerospace consultant Lance Gatling in Tokyo says major changes are brewing.

"There is a significant discussion ongoing in Japan as to whether they should reduce the number of large programs in favor of smaller satellites, smaller programs that are more manageable and can be brought to fruition in a much shorter period of time," he said.

The idea of scaling back is demoralizing many in the Japanese space program. They see their country falling behind such rivals as China, which put its first "taikonaut" into orbit last October and is planning a manned mission to the moon. Japan has yet to do its own manned missions - its astronauts have flown aboard the U.S. space shuttle.

Shinya Matsuura, author of three books about the Japanese space program, says Japan, since the end of the Cold War, has had no vision for its role in space.

"Japanese space policy had to change at that time, but they didn't change it," he said. "Space policy is a part of worldwide strategy of the government. Japanese government, they think nothing in the recent 30 years."

One problem for Japan's space community is that there are vague policies that are meant to restrict the use of space to peaceful or scientific purposes. Aerospace experts say the country needs a clearly defined national policy that includes commercial and military programs.

However, Professor Motogawa has mixed feelings about allowing military uses. "I don't know it is good or not because the peaceful utilization of space has been the principal of Japanese development since 1960s. But under the change of world situation it is slowly changing," he said.

Japan has already responded to that change, with last year's launch of two spy satellites.

Mr. Gatling, the aerospace consultant, says that formally adopting a policy allowing military use will have Japan's neighbors raising their voices in protest.

"Countries such as China and North Korea will take exception to this and use this in diplomatic communications with Japan and use it in their own policy statements because it's clear the primary objective of such systems is to have a better observation capability into North Korea and, eventually, into China," he said.

But with the restrictions still in place, Japanese companies are not even allowed to export rocket parts. That is causing the country to fall even farther behind in the commercial space industry despite its state-of-the-art skills in the traditional aviation market.