If not for Junichiro Kawaguchi, Japan’s Hayabusa mission might be remembered as just another costly space failure instead of the first to bring samples from an asteroid back to Earth.

Launched in 2003 on what was supposed to be a four-year round trip to the asteroid Itokawa, Hayabusa (Japanese for “Falcon”) experienced several crippling problems — including a fuel leak, communications glitches and malfunctioning ion engines — that forced Kawaguchi and his team to engineer a detour that added three years to the mission.

Getting Hayabusa to limp back to Earth was only one of the challenges the mission overcame under Kawaguchi’s leadership. In 2005, after reaching Itokawa, Haybusa’s Minerva mini-lander missed the asteroid’s surface. Attempts to fire a projectile at the asteroid to stir up dust likewise failed. Ultimately, Hayabusa itself touched down on the asteroid twice in the hopes of forcing some dust into its sample canister.

“Being able to retrieve material from a celestial body beyond Earth was more than we had hoped for,” Kawaguchi told a reporter last November after it was confirmed that the material found in the return capsule that landed in Australia five months earlier was indeed asteroid dust. “When the capsule returned, I said, ‘Just having it return is like a dream,’ so I don’t know how to express this, which was beyond my dreams.”

The ingenuity and perseverance of Kawaguchi and his team are expected to make it to the big screen in 2012 when 20th Century Fox releases a $20 million feature film about Hayabusa. Actor Ken Watanabe of “Inception” fame is playing the Kawaguchi character.