AKABIRA, Hokkaido (Kyodo) Tsutomu Uematsu, 40, who runs a small factory in the central Hokkaido city of Akabira, is working on a dream he has had since he was 11, when he saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
“Albeit dimly, I remember seeing an astronaut walking on the moon on a TV program as I sat on my grandfather’s lap” said Uematsu, who is managing director of Uematsu Electric Co., which makes small electromagnets used to sort iron scrap.
That moment launched Uematsu’s career on a trajectory that parallels the rockets he loves. After graduating from Kitami Institute of Technology, Uematsu took a job with an aircraft manufacturer, helping to determine the aerodynamics of aircraft. He was also part of the team that developed Japan’s mainstay rocket, the H-II.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy Uematsu’s ambition, so he returned home to help his father run his factory, maintaining electrical equipment. Because business was falling off, they decided to make electromagnets using technologies Uematsu learned about during his stint with the aerospace company. Their previously struggling operation promptly got a boost.
With the factory running at an even keel, Uematsu was able to turn his attention back to his dream: creating an inexpensive, privately developed rocket for commercial satellite launches. It’s called Camui and is his passion.
The first step was to create an engine. When he learned that Haruki Nagata, 41, a professor of aerospace engineering at Hokkaido University, had developed a unique rocket engine in 2004 that uses a combination of plastics and liquid oxygen for fuel, he knew he had a partner who could help him reach his goal.
“I thought that if the engine is successfully developed, we can build a rocket that can fly,” Uematsu said.
Uematsu and Nagata set out to test their rocket’s engine at the factory in Akabira, together with Nagata’s engineering students, and factory employees. The 7,500 sq.-meter facility has a plant for rocket development, along with meeting rooms and a dormitory on the second floor. Last May, the team built a 55-meter-high tower for zero-gravity experiments.
“You don’t have to give up your dream if you have knowledge and ingenuity,” Uematsu said.
He and his team have made significant progress. In March last year, they successfully launched their fourth rocket from the town of Taiki on Hokkaido’s Pacific coast. The silver, 6-meter-tall rocket reached an altitude of 1 km and successfully separated its payload from the booster.
Uematsu and his cohorts are now aiming to launch a 3.8-meter rocket to an altitude of 10 km. By 2008, they hope to reach 60 km, and 110 km by 2013, at which time they plan to conduct a zero-gravity experiment.
What makes Uematsu’s rocket special is its use of off-the-shelf rather than custom-made components and materials.
“By using such materials, we can reduce costs and greatly shorten production time. For example, the body of the rocket was made by welding aluminum pipes together. Hokkaido University spent 1.5 million yen doing that, but we could make it for tens of thousands of, yen” Uematsu said.
By comparison, a huge amount of money and energy was spent on NASA’s Apollo program to send men to the moon. It was succeeded by the shuttle program.
Ironically, it is the rockets of the Apollo era that been most instructive to Uematsu.
“Technologies that were ultrahigh at that time can now be bought from catalogs. Materials, tools and machinery have all made excellent progress. It would be rather strange if we failed to achieve (now) what the Apollo program did,” Uematsu said.
Nagata said, “(More than) 60 years ago, Germany was able to build the V-2 rocket. That is something we could do.”
Indeed, Uematsu seems puzzled by the public’s lack of interest in rocketry.
“I wonder what the baby boomer generation, which should have pushed the technology forward, has been doing. This is the last chance to do that.”
But before Camui can slip the bonds of Earth, zero-gravity experiments and meteorological observations of the stratosphere are necessary, something that costs millions of yen.
“We would like to launch something weighing 4 kg to an altitude of 60 km at a cost of 1 million yen, and do it repeatedly,” Nagata said.
For his part, Uematsu hopes his rocket endeavor will give Hokkaido’s sluggish economy a boost, too.
“What is important for a big dream is to keep trying. If we can create an environment to launch rockets repeatedly, we can become the best in the world. If that happens, Hokkaido may change.”
Ryojiro Akiba, 76, former head of the Space and Astronautical Science Institute, said that as in the case of the V-2 developed by Nazi Germany as a weapon, countries promoted their space programs for military purposes and to win national prestige.
“But the situation is considerably different in the 21st century. The private sector should take the initiative in space development because the governments . . . of Japan and the United States do not have enough money (to fund space programs alone),” Akiba said. “Space cannot be used unless there are private funds.
“The Camui rocket technology is still immature, but there are many good things about it. Above all, the rocket can be manufactured at an extremely low cost. Uematsu is not just a small factory operator. . . . Keep your eye on private-(sector) rocket development,” Akiba said.
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