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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
Japan's uncertain space future
Japan: Heading for the stars? Nasda
Japan: Heading for the stars?
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Japanese space officials will be hoping that the successful launch of their H-IIA rocket will put their space effort back on track after several years of failures. However, their wish to capture a significant fraction of the world's satellite launching market seems set for disappointment.

The apparently flawless H-IIA lift-off breaks years of embarrassing failures for Japan's space agency (Nasda): six major setbacks in just seven years.

Prior to 1994, Japan's space dreams seemed to be going well. It had launched many satellites and developed the impressive H-II rocket with American help. Comparable in size and performance to an early European Ariane rocket, Japan was poised to be a serious contender in the lucrative global satellite launching market.

The H-II itself was not the rocket that would capture the contracts. It needed a somewhat higher performance and was much too expensive. But western observers noted that once Japanese engineers found out how to do something, the next thing they usually did was to find out how to do it cheaper.

The Japanese also constructed a formidable component for the International Space Station. Their Experimental Module was designed to be a workhorse of science in zero gravity and, unlike US and Russian ISS components, was built to budget and delivered on time. The Japanese have also built and tested a prototype unmanned mini-space shuttle.

But somehow it all began to fall apart. The six failures in seven years included two failed H-II launches in 1998 and 1999. They sapped Japanese morale.

Crucially, the American Hughes satellite manufacturing company pulled out of a contract with Japan to launch 10 of its satellites on the H-IIA.

Even with today's successful launch, and with successful tests next January and March, it seems unlikely that the H-IIA will attract many orders. Clients will be reluctant to risk their satellites on this still unproven rocket when there are other, more established launch vehicles, such as Ariane.

Also, as the Japanese economy faces a recession, the government is making cutbacks. Nasda will not escape them.

So while Japanese space officials can rejoice today, they know that their future will be tough.

See also:

29 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Japanese rocket blasts off
22 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Typhoon adds to Japanese space woes
15 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Japan's rocket hopes explode
04 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
Japan launches mission to Mars
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