The government and industry alike are pinning their hopes on the successful launch of the third H-IIA rocket, due to be sent into space Tuesday on its first full-scale operational mission.

The government expects the move to push Japan into the commercial satellite-launching business, while aerospace industry officials hope that transferring H-IIA technology to the private sector following a successful launch will boost the efficiency of the rocket program and make the nation’s aerospace industry more competitive.

But many have voiced concern that Japan is trying to make inroads into the business at a time when worldwide demand for commercial satellite launches is waning. And the nation also faces a host of other problems in pursuing its aerospace program, not least of which is a mountain of fiscal debt.

The 57 meter-long H-IIA is scheduled to lift off sometime between 5:20 and 5:50 p.m. at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, according to the National Space Development Agency of Japan.

Equipped with a two-stage engine powered by liquid hydrogen and oxygen and solid-fuel boosters on its sides, the rocket is capable of launching a 4.6-ton payload into geostationary transfer orbit, NASDA said.

NASDA spokesman Yukio Haruyama said this is the first operational launch for an H-IIA after two test launches were carried out last year and at the start of this year. The first two H-IIAs were carrying experimental devices.

“It is a very important mission for the H-IIA, as it will carry two satellites into orbit,” Haruyama said, noting the government has spent 60 billion yen on the rocket and the two semipractical satellites.

One of the payloads is the Data Relay Test Satellite, a communications satellite developed by NASDA. DRTS is designed to verify inter-satellite communications technology by relaying experimental data from various satellites to the Earth, NASDA said.

The second satellite, the Unmanned Space Experiment Recovery System, was developed by the government-affiliated Institute for Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer under contract from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The satellite is to conduct an experiment to manufacture large superconductive materials.

Tokyo, we have a problem

After some degree of success until 1998, Japan’s rocket development program was stung by a series of failures and glitches for four years.

In 1998, the fifth H-II rocket failed to release its satellite payload into orbit. In 1999, the eighth and last H-II experienced engine failure and came down in the Pacific Ocean, costing the government 23.9 billion yen.

The spectacular failure of the last H-II has been studied and the engine’s design has since been improved, Haruyama said.

In August 2001, the first H-IIA was launched successfully.

In February, the second H-IIA failed to release one of its two experimental satellites into orbit. Nevertheless, NASDA maintains the launch itself was a success. Due to a design error by the manufacturer, the satellite failed to send a signal to a release device on the rocket, it said.

The third H-IIA rocket will send a direct signal to the separation device, thereby ensuring the release of its payload, Haruyama said.

The government, expecting all will go according to plan Tuesday, is preparing to transfer the technology to the private sector.

A task force at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in charge of mapping out ways to privatize the H-IIA business compiled an interim report in August. Under its plan, the H-IIA technology will be handed over to a prime manufacturer. The transfer process is set to begin by as early as November.

The measure is intended to improve the international competitiveness of Japan’s rocketry through efficient private-sector management, ministry officials said.

NASDA has so far been in charge of the development and launches of the H-IIs and H-IIAs, while Rocket System Corp., a joint venture of 30 companies, has been marketing satellite launch services using the rockets.

Rocket System, created in 1990, initially won provisional contracts with two American firms to launch 30 of their satellites on H-IIAs.

But after witnessing the failure of the last H-II rocket in 1999, one of the firms canceled and the other reduced its contract. H-IIAs are now contracted to launch only eight satellites.

Yoshihide Kanie, vice president of Rocket System, said it is not yet known if the company will continue in its present form, suggesting its marketing operations may be absorbed by the prime manufacturer that will take over the H-IIA technology.

According to Kanie, the market for launches of satellite-carrying rockets is saturated. Such launches peaked at 38 in 1998 before plummeting to 17 in 2001.

European consortium Arianespace SA currently handles between 50 percent and 60 percent of all commercial satellite launches worldwide and boasts a record of more than 70 consecutive successful launches with the Ariane 4 rocket.

But Jean-Louis Claudon, a representative at Arianespace’s Tokyo office, said his company has also been affected by the global downturn.

“The global market for satellite launches has passed a peak,” he said. “And new demand has yet to materialize.”

Space race a no-starter

Industry insiders attribute the decline to the downturn in demand for satellite-based communication services, including the failure of satellite cell phone system provider Iridium LLC, which filed for bankruptcy in August 1999.

Hisashi Nishimura, general manager of the space systems department at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. — the top candidate in the battle to become prime manufacturer of the H-IIA — said the company is ready to apply despite the harsh business prospects

“We have to bear a big risk,” Nishimura said. “But it is attractive for a maker to take the initiative in the rocket business.”

If MHI is appointed as prime maker, Nishimura said his company would seek business opportunities through cooperation with foreign firms by making a mutual arrangement, for example, to provide a backup rocket in case of trouble.

Assembled in Japan

And while officials see the future of Japan’s aerospace industry riding on the latest launch, it is becoming questionable whether the H-IIA can truly be called a “made in Japan” rocket.

In the past, companies invested in rocket and satellite development as an experimental venture that was unlikely to bring immediate profits but could create long-term benefits. But now an increasing number of domestic firms, especially semiconductor and integrated-circuit makers, are withdrawing from the space business.

According to a report compiled by NASDA, 184 of the 346 NASDA-designated components used for rockets and satellites are either no longer produced in Japan or are on the verge of becoming unavailable in this country.

NASDA’s Haruyama said that amid the economic slump, firms cannot afford to maintain production lines for small-volume rocket parts.

To continue developing rockets, NASDA began adopting an increasing number of parts from the United States, Haruyama said.

By reducing the number of parts and importing foreign-made components, which cost much less than their Japanese counterparts, NASDA slashed the cost of building an H-IIA to 10 billion yen, making it more competitive with its foreign rivals.

The H-II, made entirely of Japanese parts, costs 19 billion yen.

However, Japan must maintain control of its core rocket technology, including engines and key electronic components, Haruyama said.

In the Basic Plan for Space Development report, compiled in July, the ministry focused on the objectives of Japan’s space program, which include providing various public and commercial services that use satellites as well as securing independent space technologies.

Yutaka Kaneko, an official of the ministry’s space policy division, said communications and weather satellites provide indispensable services for the public.

“It is the government’s mission to develop new and high technologies for those purposes,” Kaneko said.

But given the nation’s severe fiscal situation, the government has to select priority areas and promote efficiency in its projects, Kaneko added.

In fiscal 2002, the nation’s space-related budget stood at 274.7 billion yen, down 4 percent from a year earlier and falling for the first time in 10 years.

The three governmental organizations involved in the space program — NASDA, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan — are to be integrated into one body in fiscal 2003.

Kaneko said he hopes the merger will help promote efficiency in aerospace technology development.

Nobuki Kawashima, a professor at Kinki University and a specialist in space development, said the government should clarify the objectives of its space program in order to make them more easily understood by taxpayers.

“(The space program goals currently pitched by the government) do not appeal to the general public,” he said.

On the commercial prospects of the rockets, the professor said it will take several years before the H-IIA can become truly competitive.

Before it can hope to begin winning contracts for commercial satellite launches, the “H-IIA will need to be successfully launched at least 10 more times,” he said.

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