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Space development program a blackhole for public funds

Last Nov. 24, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. successfully launched an H-IIA F-29 rocket carrying a Canadian communications satellite, marking Japan’s first entry into the commercial satellite market.

More good space-related news came on Dec. 11, when astronaut Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) returned from a five-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

Although these developments led many to dream of a bright future for Japan’s space program, an insider in the governing Liberal Democratic Party is more cautious. He says Japan’s space development is in fact a “public works project disguised as science and technology,” and that the future of Japanese-made rockets is by no means bright.

Indeed, Mitsubishi’s space business has been chronically in the red, and due to fierce pricing competition worldwide the November launch may well become the first and last launch of a commercial satellite for Mitsubishi.

There is even apprehension that the ISS project, which is jointly sponsored by the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan under the leadership of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), may collapse.

By its very nature, space development is a power game in international politics, with its military applications in the background. Of the American space budget of $50 billion per year, only a third is earmarked for NASA. The rest is spent by the U.S. Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence bodies — mainly for military purposes such as launching reconnaissance satellites and building missile defense systems.

From the beginning, space development has been driven by its potential for military use. For example, Werhner von Braun, the father of the U.S. Apollo space program, was originally the developer of Nazi Germany’s V2 rocket, while Sergei Korolev, who launched the Sputnik satellite for the Soviet Union, was engaged in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The ISS project was initiated in 1992 to placate Boeing Co. and Lockheed Corp. which resented dwindling orders following the end of the Apollo program. The U.S. drew Russia into the ISS project to prevent rocket-related technologies from falling into the hands of “rogue states” like Iraq and North Korea in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Japan has been chipping in ¥40 billion every year to the ISS project. Its cumulative contribution has reached ¥900 billion, including ¥300 billion spent building the Kibo experimental module. So far, nine JAXA astronauts have been sent to the ISS. One way to look at it is that each astronaut has cost the taxpayers ¥100 billion. The experiments carried out in Kibo’s weightless environment have produced hardly any remarkable accomplishments.

Still Japan is likely to continue spending ¥40 billion each year on the ISS project, as requested by U.S. President Barack Obama. But why has Japan’s space program become detached from the realm of practicability? The sin lies in the Diet’s 1969 resolution upholding the principle that space must be used solely for peaceful purposes.

Japan’s space program dates back to 1955, when Hideo Itokawa launched his “Pencil Rocket.” During World War II, he had worked at the now defunct Nakajima Aircraft Co. developing the Army Type 1 fighter Hayabusa. In 1970, he made Japan the fourth country after the Soviet Union, the U.S. and France to launch a man-made satellite by putting the Osumi into orbit. His group constituted the core of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS).

But Itokawa and his followers at the University of Tokyo faced pressure from the U.S., which wanted to prevent Japanese rocket technology from being diverted to military use. In return, Washington provided Japan with outdated technology from the Thor-Delta rocket. In 1969, the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) was founded as the recipient of American know-how. In 2003, JAXA was established by integrating ISAS, NASDA and the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL).

This explains why even today Japan is blindly following the U.S. in this field, in stark contrast with the posture of ISAS to pursue independent development.

Simultaneously with the establishment of NASDA came the Diet resolution that limited Japan’s space development program solely to peaceful purposes. This forced NASDA to totally commit itself to research and development, thus excluding pursuit of practicability. The application of the results from that approach was at best the launching of communications, broadcasting and weather satellites. The beneficiaries were government-related bodies like Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., NHK and the Meteorological Agency. Thus a “space public works project” came into being, in which manufacturers of rockets and satellites consume the budget.

A turning point came to Japan’s space development in 1998 when North Korea launched the Taepodong ballistic missile. Alarmed by threats from Pyongyang, Japan started developing its own reconnaissance missiles.

But a disaster ensued in 2003 with the failed launching of an H-IIA F-6 rocket, which turned two reconnaissance satellites built at the cost of ¥62 billion into big fireworks.

This incident led to fundamental changes in Japan’s space development policy. The Aerospace Basic Law enacted in 2008 is designed to neutralize the 1969 Diet resolution. It calls for policies not only of using space development to enhance the nation’s security but also of making the domestic space industry become competitive in the global market.

To implement the policies, the strategic headquarters for space development was established within the secretariat of the Cabinet. The government’s aerospace basic plan that was adopted in January 2015 envisages launching up to 45 rockets and expanding the size of the space-related industries’ business to ¥5 trillion, both within 10 years.

A prerequisite to the plans is the development of the H-III rocket, which will cost ¥180 billion. The initial launch is targeted for 2020. The government hopes to realize Japan’s full entry into the commercial satellite market by lowering the launching cost for each H-III rocket to ¥5 billion, half that of the H-IIA rocket.

But the initiative appears to have come a bit too late because the general current worldwide of space development has greatly changed. Japanese officials were shocked to see a soft-landing experiment conducted in April 2015 by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of the U.S., although the rocket exploded immediately after landing. In November, another American firm, Blue Origin, successfully soft-landed a rocket from an altitude of 100 km. These events prove that space exploration in the U.S. is led by big venture businesses that originated in the information technology sector.

Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of SpaceX, has asserted that he will reduce cost of rocket launches to 1 percent of the present cost of about ¥7 billion by means of recycling rockets. If a rocket can be launched for ¥70 million, the landscape of space development will be completely changed with numerous private corporations putting satellites into orbit. More importantly, such ventures are being supported by the U.S. Air Force and NASA. Even if the H-III proves successful and lowers the launch cost to ¥5 billion, that would still be no match for SpaceX’s approach of recovering and reusing rockets.

Another source of concern is lack of communication and coordination between ISAS and NASDA. JAXA is proposing using the Upsilon rocket as a booster engine for the H-III to reduce the cost. But the Upsilon rocket developed by ISAS uses solid fuel, while the H-IIA developed by NASDA runs on liquid fuel.

ISAS has 130 researchers who through trial and error built the Hayabusa probe that brought back to Earth sample materials from the asteroid Itokawa and the Akatsuki probe that is tasked with studying the atmosphere of Venus. But NASDA staff have no experience in manufacturing. They are just placing orders with manufacturers. Because they frequently change specifications because of their obsession with the latest technology, the manufacturers are fed up with them. NASDA’s bullying of manufacturers is regarded by the Liberal Democratic Party insider as indicative of an inferiority complex toward ISAS researchers.

The reality of space development is far from the lofty idea of providing a new dream for mankind. The H-III project failing to come to fruition after spending ¥180 billion of taxpayer money would be a nightmare for Japanese citizens.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes.