Japan's Space Race faces obstacles

May 04, 2009
*Special to asia!

Japan, long accustomed to being Asia’s technological leader is getting serious competition from China.

In the April of 2005 JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, announced a grand 20-year plan. Tellingly, it contained repeated references to China, especially its “first human space flight” and its ambition to reach the moon. (China now has achieved its second human flight, a feat that was greeted with silence from Japan.)

To counter China, JAXA put forth plans to send Japan’s first astronauts into orbit. It will also set up a base on the moon. While this may serve as an encouragement to a nation already spending a lot of its time worrying about China, a closer examination of the fine print tells a different story.

For one, key decisions on whether JAXA will aggressively pursue human flight and whether it will actually set up a moon base will only be made in 2015, a full decade away. And even if JAXA is willing, it would need a vastly larger budget than the one it is currently getting from the money men in Tokyo. The agency now runs on ¥200 billion ($2 billion) a year, one-10th the budget of NASA.

Unfortunately, what JAXA is facing is not a budget increase, but a budget cut. The cut is so severe that its head, Keiji Tachikawa, had to take the unprecedented step of appearing on TV to appeal for funds.

Less than a month after unveiling his grand plan, Tachikawa, who was roped in from the private sector to run the hapless JAXA, told reporters the lack of funds was pushing the programmes on manned flight and the moon base to near collapse.

He said the Japanese parliament has cut JAXA’s budget each year since it was created in October 2003 by merging three government space bodies. “If the present rate of decline continues, the space programme will collapse,” Tachikawa said, adding that JAXA is “almost in a crisis situation.”

For Japanese politicians who have to cope with a sluggish economy recently recovering from a decade of deflation, funding the space programme is a low priority. And even the space enthusiasts among them are having a hard time reconciling JAXA’s ambitious plans with its string of failures.

In 2003 alone, the agency lost the Mars probe Nozumi and the Earth observation satellite Midori-II. It was also forced to destroy an advanced H-IIA rocket in mid-flight, after a malfunction. It was to get over these embarrassing failures that Tachikawa was recruited in early 2005 to give the agency a new face and new direction.

It is Tachikawa’s bad luck that he now presides over yet another potential failure, that of the spacecraft Hayabusa. Launched in 2003, Hayabusa was supposed to touch down on the asteroid Itokawa and bring back material for scientific examination.

Hayabusa did land on Itokawa in late 2005, but lost its altitude control upon taking off from the asteroid. And communications between JAXA and the spacecraft had been cut off. The agency now says that it needs time to restore communication with Hayabusa, and the spacecraft’s orbit has been redesigned to bring it back to earth three years later than scheduled, in 2010 rather than 2007. Until then, Tachikawa and JAXA will have to make do with a shrinking budget.


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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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