Challenge comes true for Epsilon engineer

by Yuko Fukaya

Kyodo

Having vowed to “revolutionize the rocket world,” aerospace engineer Yasuhiro Morita saw his promise fulfilled with the recent takeoff of Japan’s new solid-fuel rocket Epsilon, utilizing an innovative mobile launch control system.

Morita felt a rush of exhilaration on Sept. 14 while watching the launch on a computer screen at the control tower about 3 km from the launchpad.

Morita, 55, professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, took charge of development of the Epsilon, Japan’s first new rocket in 12 years and one that incorporates artificial intelligence.

The mobile system enables the rocket to be controlled by desktop computers with fewer staff than a conventional rocket launch, normally involving a huge array of equipment and numerous people.

Morita said he was confident the planned Aug. 27 launch of the rocket “would absolutely be a success.”

But JAXA, as the agency is known, had to scrub the launch just 19 seconds before liftoff after an abnormality in the position of the rocket was detected. It was the second postponement since the initially planned Aug. 22 launch.

“The cancellation was announced at the very moment when our tension reached the peak,” he said, adding he has had to face tough days ever since. But he weathered the difficulties, believing “these are the birth pangs for carving out a new future,” he said.

A native of Tokyo, Morita was first attracted to rockets as a child watching “Thunderbirds,” the British science-fiction puppetry TV series.

While enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Tokyo, Morita was involved in launching a space probe to examine Halley’s comet.

While working as an assistant on the M-5 rocket, Epsilon’s predecessor, at JAXA’s institute, Morita developed a posture control program for it. He became supervisor of the rocket’s development in 2003.

Morita said he felt frustrated when the rocket was retired in 2006, a move taken because of high development costs. But he soon moved on to the next project.

“I believed it would be a great opportunity to create a new rocket,” he recalled. “So I thought, ‘Let’s just forget about the M-5 for now and take on a new challenge.’ “

Morita said he will continue to make efforts to cut costs for the Epsilon project.

“I would like to make one achievement after another like the Hayabusa unmanned spacecraft that took Japan by storm (by bringing material from the small asteroid Itokawa back to Earth),” he said.

His senior researchers said Morita is cheerful and good at explaining to people outside the industry about rocket development in simple terms.