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Picking Winners is the Only Way for Japan's Future in Space

by David Todd

(Posted March 24, 2000)

Japan's space strategy is in trouble. For the Japanese the loss of face suffered with H-2 and M-5 launch failures is intolerable. In the last few years they have also suffered well publicised failures of their spacecraft in orbit. Worse they now see China taking leadership in space commerce and exploration in the Asia-Pacific region. This year China will launch its first Taikonaut. Even India is achieving tangible success with its space program. What can Japan do to remedy this situation? Should they persist in their dreams of having expendable launchers, reusable rockets, their own satellite buses and manned exploration all using indigenously developed technology?


NASDA's H-2 launcher (left) suffered failures from unrelated causes on its last two flights, in February 1998 and November 1999. The program has been cancelled in favor of the upgraded H-2A (center).

ISAS' own M-5 (right) failed on its second launch in February 2000.

The answer is no. To use several metaphors: Japan has attempted to 'Keep up with the Jones' (United States and Europe) in competing across all space technologies. But it has failed to do so and has become 'Jack of all trades and master of none'. In the short term, Japan should not try to 'reinvent the wheel' but would be better to do what it has always done - take ideas and products from elsewhere and then develop the technology and market an added-value product to the world.

Already there are signs are that Japan is doing this. The H-2A rocket is to use cheaper solid rocket boosters from the United States. A collaboration on the HOPE-X space shuttle is planned with France. This is logical as France has much relevant research and technology was gained from their abortive Hermes project. Collaboration between Boeing's Rocketdyne and Mitsubishi to develop the MB-XX series of upper stage rocket engines is another example. They will compete directly with the Snecma/Pratt&Whitney engine in the 250kN thrust class.

For the long term, Japan would do well to pick a few 'winner' technologies and divert the majority of its space research resources to them. In this way Japanese space research would not just keep up with the United States and Europe but would leapfrog ahead of them.

A 'winner' technology may be air breathing rocket engines for reusable launchers which they are known to be well ahead in researching. They have reportedly done some advanced hardware studies of air 'liquefaction' cooling techniques using heat exchangers for their air breathing ATREX rocket engine. This type of technology's key advantage to reusable rockets is that instead of carrying a large amount of heavy liquid oxygen to allow hydrogen fuel to burn in a rocket engine chamber, a large part of the launcher's flight would use oxygen from the atmosphere, a weight saving which would provide much more payload capability. In the light of recent allegations involving British business journalists promoting shares which they already own, it should be noted at this point that your correspondent has an interest in this type of technology, being a shareholder in a British company which has designed a similar air breathing rocket engine.

David Todd is space analyst for Airclaims Ltd.

His columns appear as part of regular updates for subscribers to Airclaims' SpaceTrak® database. Hyperlinks have been added to the original text.

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