Japan Discovers It’s Harder to Be a Star in Space : Aerospace: The failure of a new rocket sets back its effort to become a key player in the commercial launch business.


Mineichi Minezaki was supposed to be part of the noble effort to launch Japanese industry into the ultimate frontier of high technology--outer space. Instead he has landed himself an astronomical headache.

As a manager at Rocket Systems Corp., a company established in 1990 by 74 of Japan’s leading companies--including Nissan Motors, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and NEC Corp.--his job is to help find and serve customers for rocket launch services.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 18, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 18, 1992 Home Edition Business Part D Page 3 Column 6 Financial Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
SPACE SHUTTLE--A story in Monday’s editions about Japan’s space program misstated the name and date of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.

The problem is that Rocket Systems Corp. doesn’t have a rocket to launch.


The engine of the H-II, the first all-Japanese rocket capable of launching commercial satellites, exploded into flames during a test in June, forcing a decision last week to delay completing the rocket for the second time.

The accident may have slammed shut Japan’s last window of opportunity to become a significant factor in the commercial rocket business. “We were supposed to do business with the H-II,” says Minezaki woefully. “If the rocket isn’t completed, we can’t do anything. We have had inquiries, but we can’t take orders.”

The delay means that the first launch won’t be until February, 1994, two years after the original launch date. And Rocket Systems will not be able to fill its first commercial order until the end of 1996 at the earliest. By then, U.S., French and even Soviet and Chinese rocket makers are expected to be bidding for satellite launching business with far less costly rockets.

“We finally thought we were on our feet, so this (accident) was a real shock,” says Tomifumi Godai, executive director of the Launch Vehicle Development and Operation division of the National Space Development Agency (NASDA), Japan’s version of NASA.

Still, Godai insists that commercial competitiveness is not a primary goal of the $2-billion H-II program. “We are not doing this to be competitive. Our tradition is to launch rockets without mistakes. That is our history, and we want to preserve it.”

Godai’s statement represents a far less ambitious view than sentiments expressed two years ago, when NASDA encouraged the formation of Rocket Systems to help transform the H-II program from a government project to a commercial venture.

Today, with 33 employees and little to do, Rocket Systems’ future is dim. Its shareholders have deep pockets but may not be willing to sustain the losses necessary to make the company a going concern.

Even if the government gives its technology to the companies that are developing the H-II and allows free use of government facilities for manufacturing, it is doubtful that Japan will be able to launch rockets for under $100 million a shot--the going price for sending a commercial satellite into orbit. That would mean relying on government orders for the bulk of Rocket Systems’ business.

Japan’s failure in space is a blow to a people who have prided themselves in taking just about any technology and commercializing it. Japan was anxious to develop its own satellite delivery system in part because of concerns about the reputedly poor quality of foreign parts in Japanese satellites and the frequent launch failures in Europe and the United States.

Japanese space officials aren’t ready to turn their rocket launch pads into rice paddies, however.

For one, the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science, a modestly budgeted group that pursues space projects largely for research, is doing respected work. It won fame by launching a space probe into lunar orbit, making Japan only the third country to have accomplished that feat.

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry is using its $160-million-a-year share of the space budget to organize companies into consortia to do joint research on the uses of low-gravity conditions in space. The goal is to develop new materials for semiconductors. MITI is also seeking funding for an unmanned mini-shuttle, HOPE, which would be launched into space with a rocket but would be capable of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere on its own to be reused for further space missions.

Yoshiki Morino, a senior NASDA researcher who authored an upbeat paper two years ago predicting Japanese success in developing a space business, insists that in spite of the current problems, Japan will eventually apply its expertise in cost cutting to produce cheaper rockets.

Minezaki of Rocket Systems hopes that the H-II will demonstrate a perfect launch record and attract customers at higher prices with proof of reliability. The H-I, which was built with the help of American technology, had a perfect launch record.

The H-II, however, represents a far more difficult technical challenge than the previous rocket. And it marks the first time Japan has developed a rocket engine from scratch. NASDA officials are not sure what caused the test engine to go up in flames and admit that they will have to start from scratch to redesign important segments of the engine.

Meanwhile the delays in the H-II program are playing havoc with Japan’s other space programs. The H-II was scheduled to launch the ETS-VI, Japan’s first world-class communications satellite, and later the mini-shuttle. The delay in completing the H-II has pushed back funding for mini-shuttle development.

In some respects, Japan’s repeated program delays represent no more than the hazards of a technologically challenging task. Some observers argue that Japan has made a great deal of progress given its limited $1.5-billion annual budget, less than one tenth NASA’s yearly budget.

Yet, Japan has invested similarly small amounts in advanced technology areas like semiconductors and advanced telecommunications with better results. Why not in space?

The answer is in the way Japan organizes itself to target new technology. Typically, foreign technology is imported through licenses and joint ventures. As familiarity with it grows, it is spun off into a variety of commercial applications in the domestic market, where it is improved upon.

Japanese companies have never had the opportunity, however, to apply space technology they acquired from the United States. NASDA is legally prohibited from doing defense work, the key customer for space programs in the United States and Europe.

Although the communications satellite business is lucrative, Japanese companies have been prevented from dominating the sector because U.S. trade officials forced Japan to open its satellite purchases to competitive bids several years ago.

In the unlikely event that Japan does develop a competitive rocket, it will still have to deal with the problem of its launch facilities. Because of a deal with local fishermen, NASDA’s primary launch complex in Tanegashima, off the coast of Japan, can only be used 90 days a year. Any delay could mean scrubbing a launch for months.

There were a few years when Japan didn’t appear to be quite so lost in space.

When the Columbia space shuttle blew up in 1988, launch customers were forced to turn to other vehicles for launches, and France’s Ariane was flooded with new business. At that time, Japanese pundits pointed to the need for alternative rockets and suggested that Japan’s famed reliability could make a contribution to the business.

If the H-II had been completed by February, 1992, as originally planned, Japan could have been on its way to becoming a space power.

Now two years behind schedule, Japan’s space program risks being left in the dust.