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Japan’s new space agency struggling

An official with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency officials shows the area on a model of an H-2A rocket that was responsible for the failure of a satellite launch on Saturday.
An official with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency officials shows the area on a model of an H-2A rocket that was responsible for the failure of a satellite launch on Saturday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Japan’s Mars probe is in trouble. Its weather satellites are breaking down. And its latest attempt to put a pair of spy satellites into orbit ended last weekend in a $92 million fireball. While rival China is basking in the glory of its first manned space flight, Japan’s new space agency is off to a decidedly inauspicious start.

"Is this the best we can do?” said an editorial in the Asahi, a major daily, after an H2-A rocket carrying the two spy satellites failed to launch properly and was detonated in midflight over the remote Tanegashima Space Center.

The failure was especially disappointing because it followed five consecutive successful liftoffs for the H2-A, a two-stage rocket designed by Japan to show off its technical prowess. The H-2A has served as this country’s primary launch vehicle for several years.

Officials declined to comment on the likely impact of the failure until they complete an investigation. The H2-A was destroyed just minutes after liftoff Saturday because a booster on the side of the rocket failed to detach itself, pulling the rocket off course.

“We are investigating what happened,” said Hiroaki Sato, a spokesman for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. “We still don’t know how this will affect future launches.”

Success is hard to come by
Created in October to streamline and focus a space bureaucracy previously comprised of three separate agencies, JAXA is finding success hard to come by.

Japan’s highest-profile project, the Nozomi Mars probe, is due to reach the Red Planet this month after a five-year journey, but officials say it is off course and may not achieve orbit. Next week, they plan to try firing its engines in a last-minute effort to fix its trajectory and save the mission.

Just over one month ago, communications were lost with Midori 2, an environmental observation satellite. The launch of an H-2A carrying a multi-purpose weather satellite to replace one that malfunctioned several years ago is scheduled for January or February, but that, too, is now looking iffy.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Sato said.

The H2-A failure, the first launch since JAXA was created, comes after a series of glitches forced the liftoff to be postponed three times.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said. JAXA chief Shuichiro Yamanouchi apologized for “failing in this very important mission.”

Although Japan put its first two spy satellites into orbit in March, mainly to keep watch on neighboring North Korea, it can obtain photos only every other day — a problem the second pair of satellites would have solved.

An official with the Cabinet’s Satellite Intelligence Center, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the government would make do with the current pair for the time being. But he added that launches scheduled for 2005 and 2006 may be pushed up to compensate for the loss of the second pair.

Budget cuts ahead?
Officials fear that Japan’s space program, already struggling to make the most of its very limited resources, could face further budget cuts if the launch pad disappointments continue.

JAXA operates with about 1,800 employees and an annual budget of $1.6 billion, or one-tenth of NASA’s. China’s budget is a secret, but it is believed to have spent more than $2.2 billion on its human spaceflight program alone.

Since sending its first human into space on Oct. 15, China has launched three satellites into orbit. In all, it has had 32 successful launches since October 1996, including the human mission.

China has also said it would probably put two more astronauts into orbit within the next two years on the country’s second crewed mission, and its aerospace officials have said they planned to launch a space station within 10 years.

“Japan could put a man in space in five years if it wanted to,” said Saburo Matsunaga, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “But Japan doesn’t have the luxury to do things like that at the moment.”

Still, Matsunaga said, Tokyo’s record has been good overall.

“For the small number of launches Japan has done, the country has a high rate of success,” he said. “The U.S., Russia and China have experimented a lot with military-purpose space projects, some of which are totally covert missions, and have failed many times.”