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Is sci-fi becoming sci-fact in Japan, too?

by Rowan Hooper

Where is Japan’s equivalent of Elon Musk? Where’s the young entrepreneur with a huge bank balance and dreams to match? Where is that someone raised in these isles on sci-fi manga and space movies who wants to make human travel in space a reality?

In 2011, Musk — the billionaire founder of spacecraft and rocket company SpaceX — was awarded the Heinlein Prize for Advances in Space Commercialization. That award — made by the prize’s sponsoring body, the International Aeronautical Congress, in Bremen, Germany — was bestowed before his major breakthrough last month when, on May 25, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station (ISS) some 400 km above Earth.

It was the first time a privately operated spacecraft had achieved that feat, and many commentators have hailed it as the beginning of a new era of space travel.

With that successful linkup in space, Musk had seen a key part of his ambitious dream come true, but the South African-born inventor-businessman embodies the can-do attitude of his adopted U.S. homeland to an almost preposterous degree. Consequently, merely launching a cargo vessel to the ISS is not enough to satisfy that 40-year-old resident of Bel Air, California.

In his acceptance speech for the $500,000 Heinlein Prize — whose name honors the memory of Robert A. Heinlein, one of the most popular science-fiction writers of the 20th century — Musk declared not only that he will get to Mars within 20 years, but that he will end up putting at least 10,000 people on the Red Planet.

It’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement. It seems the creators of Tony Stark — the flamboyant fictional inventor, playboy and billionaire who is behind Iron Man — were similarly impressed. Musk is rumored to be the inspiration for the character played by Robert Downey Jr. in the 2008 blockbuster movie “Iron Man.”

Since making a fortune with Internet startup PayPal, Musk has pursued the sorts of projects that the super-rich are usually just not interested in. He started Tesla Motors and produced the Roadster — a performance electric car that is helping to redefine the image of electric-powered automobiles. Now he’s making electric family cars and an SUV.

But it is through Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the company he founded in 2002, that he has really let his imagination run riot.

With Musk at the helm, SpaceX has spent $100 million developing rockets and capsules. This may sound like a lot, but for space travel — and for what’s been achieved — it’s a bargain price. In any case, SpaceX has secured an astronomically eye-watering $4 billion-worth of orders from NASA for delivery services to the ISS.

Musk is already working on converting the Dragon capsule to carry humans, as well as on a rocket system that will be reusable, like the Space Shuttle.

But a Martian trip would change everything. In 2010, President Barack Obama declared that trips to Mars would begin in the mid-2030s. But the divided U.S. Congress has baulked at making the money available to NASA, and the plan has stalled. Perhaps it will be down to private companies to realize Obama’s vision.

In his roles as both CEO and chief technology officer of SpaceX, Musk is likely the most high profile of the new space entrepreneurs — but it’s not just him.

Space travel really is entering a new era. Gone are the days when only governments could afford to fund extraterrestrial missions. NASA, its budget slashed, retired its fleet of Space Shuttles last year. Private companies are picking up the slack.

In Japan the most prominent of those is operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. which, as a company, could hardly be more different from Musk’s SpaceX.

MHI (as it’s known) has its roots in a Western-style foundry and shipyard in Nagasaki, Kyushu, that dates to before the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Nonetheless, despite its historical baggage MHI has certainly produced a very fine rocket in its HII-A — the power behind a delivery system aimed to compete with others using American, Russian and European rockets.

Last month, in fact, an HII-A launched from the Tanegashima Space Center operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Kagoshima Prefecture was used to put not one, but two satellites into two different orbits around Earth.

The first satellite released — about 16 minutes after takeoff on May 18 — was a KOMPSAT-3 made by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and designed to monitor the environment. Then, about 23 minutes after takeoff, JAXA’s Global Changing Observation Mission 1st — Water “SHIZUKU” (GCOM-W1) satellite to monitor climate change, along with two small “demonstration” satellites.

It’s all good, and environmental monitoring is vital — but where are the ambitions to equal Musk’s?

Perhaps it’s because in a large, prestigious and venerable company such as MHI, individuality and risk-taking on a SpaceX scale is impossible. It simply would never be allowed.

On May 31, SpaceX’s Dragon left the ISS and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. It had to negotiate the intense heat, deploy its parachutes and find its splashdown target off the Pacific coast of Baja California. The whole operation went perfectly to plan — but that’s not how future versions of the Dragon spacecraft will land.

After all, that’s not how spacecraft land in the movies, right? They touch down using thruster rockets that allow them to hover and land gently.

“I think that’s really cool. It’s how spaceships land in sci-fi movies,” Musk told a press conference after Dragon had safely returned.

In 2008, the Japanese government created the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy. The aim was to streamline Japan’s stifling bureaucracy and try to create a more entrepreneurial space culture.

However, the problem for a wannabe Japanese Elon Musk was identified by Shoichira Asada, MHI’s general manager for space systems. Addressing an astronautical conference in Prague in September 2010, he said that only in the United States was domestic demand for space business strong enough to support private companies seeking a commercial return on investment. That’s why SpaceX already has $4 billion-worth of orders.

However, as Japan itself just doesn’t have that sort of demand, space companies here have to look to foreign countries placing “export” orders, Asada said.

Which brings us in orbital fashion back to last month’s launch of KOMPSAT-3.

Though that business came courtesy of South Korea, there is another space power closer to home that may be more relevant for Japan: China. The number of people in Japan’s space workforce is around 6,500, whereas China has 50,000. China’s budget for space industries isn’t yet as big as America’s, but if it catches up, it could be the next big space power.

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”