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There is no humor to be found in Japan’s recent disappointing — and expensive — rocket failures. Nevertheless, the news that the spectacular crash of an H-II rocket last November may have been caused by design and planning errors does more than suggest that the nation’s rocket scientists should go back to their drawing boards, as the tag line of the old joke puts it. Together with indications that the accident involving an M-5 rocket in February may have resulted from flaws in its materials, it raises the question of whether Japan should continue its dogged pursuit of a costly rocket-development program that seems to have had few positive results.

The frank assessments of the reasons for the two recent failures came from a team from the Space Activities Commission, the nation’s senior space-policy board, which pointed out what it considers to be specific design and planning mistakes in the No. 8 H-II rocket, which was carrying a government-owned multipurpose satellite when engine failure caused it to crash. The team’s report blamed the engineers responsible for the rocket’s design for failing to include a system to clear up questions raised by the detection of abnormal phenomena during the development stage. The National Space Development Agency of Japan says its experts actually are back at their drawing boards, preparing a new design to eliminate the recently discovered problem.

The Space Activities Commission report cites the need for more substantial basic research on rocket materials, appearing to join the many critics who often point out Japan’s weakness in basic research. Whether or not that contributed, both of the recent accidents occurred shortly after liftoff. The details on the failure of the M-5 rocket, barely a half a minute into its flight, to put a multibillion-yen astronomical observation satellite into the planned orbit were provided to the assessment team by the Education Ministry’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, which has jurisdiction over such launches and which some believe is an indication of “too many cooks” being involved in the rocket program.

It now appears possible, if still somewhat unlikely, that the program’s days are numbered despite its successes. The Management and Coordination Agency has put itself at the forefront of NASDA’s critics with a scathing denunciation of the high costs required for its rocket launches, which make it seriously uncompetitive in comparison with the space programs of the United States, Russia and European nations. According to the agency, NASDA has spent some 930 billion yen on rocket development and launches since its establishment in 1969, with the cost per launch pricing it out of the world market for commercial-satellite orbiting.

An understandably defensive NASDA, which is under the jurisdiction of the Science and Technology Agency, acknowledges that spectacular failures create the impression of wasted tax revenues, but retorts that only three of its 32 rocket launches have failed. Be that as it may, the great expense required for each liftoff — some 19 billion yen — cannot be expected to sit well with the public at a time of continuing economic uncertainty. NASDA officials argue that its costs are higher than the 9 billion yen in the U.S., 4.3 billion yen to 6.7 billion yen in Russia and 10.8 billion yen to 13.2 billion yen for the European consortium because there are so many fewer launches here — the total for the U.S. reportedly has reached 553 rockets.

Management and Coordination Agency officials seem in no mood to discuss or debate whether that is the root of the problem. Citing mounting public dissatisfaction with the huge amounts being spent, it has gone so far as to suggest that the entire rocket program be abandoned. That clearly cannot be a welcome message to the men and women who have worked with such untiring dedication on the nation’s space projects over the past three decades, despite occasional setbacks and disappointments.

Changes of many kinds are in the air, however. While the presence of a Japanese astronaut aboard a U.S. space-shuttle flight can still attract attention from both the media and the public, people’s interests today are considerably more earthbound than in the early glory days of manned space flight. Routine rocket launches can seem like an unnecessary diversion of scarce financial resources. Sometimes it is better to cut one’s losses, as the saying goes. The Education Ministry and the Space and Technology Agency are to be merged next year. That is the time for the government to implement plans for a review of the whole question of whether this country needs its own rocket development program.

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