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A Japanese rocket carrying an astronomical observation satellite, designed to check X-rays in outer space, failed to reach its scheduled orbit after liftoff from Kagoshima Space Center last Thursday. Coming on the heels of the crash last November of a rocket that carried a multipurpose satellite, the latest rocket failure is a serious wakeup call for the nation’s space program.

As in the previous accident, the first-stage segment of the rocket failed. But this rocket, known as M5, used solid fuel, instead of the liquid fuel that had been used in the H2 rocket launched in November; it therefore had a less complex structure than the H2. But that did not assure a successful launch. According to the Institute of Space and Astronomical Science, an affiliate of the Education Ministry, the M5 began to deviate from its scheduled course less than a minute after liftoff as a result of a drop in first-stage internal combustion pressure.

The latest foulup is a reminder of the critical role the first-stage rocket plays in a launch. The rocket is tracked by ground television, so its malfunction can be instantly detected. But once a problem has occurred there is no way to fix it.

Not only Japanese launches have experienced successive failures. Other countries have had similar accidents over the past year, including the failure of the U.S. Mars explorer. Of course, every launch comes only after exhaustive preparations. Yet somehow accidents occur. In a way, mishaps may be unavoidable in such complicated technology areas as space development. But this is no excuse for the succession of launch failures in Japan. Rather, the mishaps should be taken as indications of a decline in Japan’s space technology.

As a first step to stem this decline, it is urgent that there be thorough checks on the rocket manufacturing process. A rocket consists of numerous parts, as does a satellite. It won’t work if even one tiny part is defective. If a defect is found in the rocket after liftoff, nothing can be done. That is the Achilles’ heel of space technology, which comprises a mass of precision instruments.

Japan’s space program, unlike that in other countries, comes under the control of two bodies: the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and the National Space Development Agency of Japan, an affiliate of the Agency of Science and Technology. Rockets are launched from two sites, Uchinoura and Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture.

So far the institute has launched at least one scientific satellite or exploratory vehicle every year using its own rockets. It has put in orbit four X-ray astronomical satellites since 1979, playing a vital role in the observation of Black Holes and supernovas. Now, however, the failure of the M5 rocket has seriously tarnished its image as a pioneer in space research.

The satellite carried by the rocket, weighing about 1.7 tons, was the largest yet launched by the institute. It also had the highest sensitivity in the world to detect high-energy X-rays in outer space. Astronomers the world over had expected the satellite to shed light on the makeup of the universe, providing information about such questions as how galaxies were formed. The loss of this satellite is a heavy blow to space research in Japan, and throughout the world.

From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, following initial setbacks, the institute made one successful launch after another to put small satellites on orbit. Beginning in 1995, however, its program was hit by a series of technical failures. The recent failure, coming on top of those errors, indicates the program is in crisis.

The M5, one of the largest solid-fuel rockets in the world, has been launched only twice since it started being used in 1997. Its reliability has yet to be established. As rockets and satellites increase in size, the technology involved becomes more complex. It may be that the institute has been unable to bolster its human and physical resources in response to these growing demands of technology.

Japan’s space development is undergoing a generational change as the founding engineers who started from scratch are giving way to younger ones. In the process, human and technological exchanges between the two space development organizations will become more important than ever before. The scheduled merger of the Education Ministry and the Science and Technology Agency, effective from 2001, will make it easier not only to promote cooperation in rocket operation and development, but also to achieve an affective reorganization of the two operating arms.

The government pours about 300 billion yen a year into the space program. More failures cannot be allowed, and not just because taxpayers’ money will be wasted. The causes of the latest accident should be investigated thoroughly as the first step in a fundamental review of the nation’s space program.

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