Profile | Naoki Okumura, President, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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Naoki Okumura’s April 1 arrival at the helm of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) coincided with the start of the five-year implementation phase of Japan’s updated Basic Plan on Space Policy, which among other things calls for a more application-focused approach to space system development.

The Basic Plan, which grew out of the 2008 Basic Law for Space Policy that redirected the nation’s space program, carves out a role for JAXA in utilizing space for national security and disaster management. It also seeks to strengthen Japan’s space industry, in part through cooperative efforts to develop globally competitive commercial space products. 

Among those products is the Advanced Satellite with New System Architecture for Observation (Asnaro) small satellite platform, which Japan hopes will gain market traction in countries with fledgling space programs. Vietnam has signed on as the first international customer for the platform, which in this case will host radar sensors for Earth observation.

The Asnaro platform is sized to launch aboard Japan’s new Epsilon solid-fueled small rocket, which successfully debuted in September. The payload on that mission was the Spectroscopic Planet Observatory for Recognition of Interaction of Atmosphere, or Sprint-A, satellite. 

JAXA also is embarking on a replacement for Japan’s workhorse H-2A and H-2B rockets — the new vehicle is dubbed H-3 — with an eye toward establishing itself as a player in the hypercompetitive commercial launch market. H-2A lead contractor and operator Mitsubishi Heavy Industries recently won a breakthrough contract to launch the commercial Telstar 12 Vantage satellite in 2015 and is working with JAXA to improve the vehicle’s performance. One of the key H-3 goals is a 50 percent reduction in costs.

Okumura, a steel industry expert who served for six years on Japan’s Council for Science and Technology Policy, says his mandates as JAXA president include ensuring the nation’s continued autonomy in space while expanding utilization of the medium. He spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Misuzu Onuki.

What are JAXA’s top strategic priorities for the next five years and what are the programs that represent these priorities?

According to Japan’s New Basic Plan on Space Policy, there are three main targets: national security and disaster management; development of industries; and space science. We are requiring all our budget proposals to follow the new plan.

As specific examples for national security and disaster management, the new flagship rocket H-3 and Super Low Altitude Test Satellite (SLATS) will be starting development officially in the next fiscal year. SLATS is intended to be a small, responsive and affordable satellite with high-resolution capability and electric propulsion. Both projects are also for industrial capability development as well.

For the development of industries, we’re considering a high-power geostationary satellite bus with engineering innovations using a cooperative development model. These new integrated systems could be competitive internationally even though Japanese components are already competitive and have been exported. However, it is necessary to maintain and advance our international competitive position.

In addition to the development of industries, satellite utilization will be promoted. For example, the Meteorological Agency has used weather satellites not only by themselves but also in combination with terrestrial data, historical data and prediction algorithms so that more-accurate weather forecasts have been realized. The same thing will be applicable in other industries through value-added solutions providers. End users will have a partnership role from the beginning of a satellite utilization project. Satellites are prominent social infrastructure; however, their utilization is limited without a strong user community.

There are also the JAXA science programs. It could be said that 2020, when the Summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo, is a turning and targeting point for the maiden flight of H-3, the next flagship rocket; the return of the Hayabusa-2 asteroid sample-return mission from a six-year round trip; and the next step for Japanese human space activities after completing the international space station 2020 agreement. JAXA will perform space activities and broaden utilization to contribute to improving the quality of life for citizens, as well as strengthen the economy and improve our competitiveness in the world marketplace.

How does JAXA’s current-year budget compare with previous years and what is the outlook for the future?

The 2013 budget is $1.625 billion, a cut of $300 million compared to the previous year. The JAXA budget has held steadily at the same level of about $1.8 billion in recent years through supplementary budget appropriations.

It is difficult to predict budgets for the following years. However, there is no reason to expect an increased budget. Our only option is to execute our programs within this budget following the new space plan. Private-sector cooperation will be also contributing to the total budget with, for example, collaboration on the innovative high-power geostationary satellites.

What is the status of the proposed successor to the H-2A and H-2B rockets? 

The proposed 2014 budget for development of the H-3, the flagship rocket successor to the H-2A and H-2B, is $70 million. The initial budget for this program will be approved within a few months. A key H-3 program goal is about a 50 percent cost reduction compared to H-2A. The maiden flight will be in 2020 according to the budget being scheduled. H-3 will be developed under the engineering lead of JAXA. However, private companies will contribute more than in previous rocket programs from the start. The configuration is under discussion at the Japanese Space Policy Committee Cabinet Office. H-3 will be competitive in the world market. Therefore, foreign-user-friendly development is necessary by working closely with Japanese industrial partners. I expect that H-3 will achieve five or six launches per year for growth of the Japanese space industry and its employee base.  

What are your expectations for the Epsilon small rocket, which recently made its inaugural launch?

The first Epsilon has just launched. That was not the full Epsilon configuration but a prototype test launch. Epsilon will be improved to make it more efficient and capable step by step, while holding the line on cost for the international launching market, in addition to domestic science missions. The second flight is now scheduled for 2015.

One or two Epsilon flights per year will be launched hopefully after the upgraded E1 mission in a few years. This will depend on the status of international launch contracts.

Can you describe the structure of the Asnaro small-satellite development project and outline JAXA’s role?

NEC Corp. has developed the Nextar bus, which is the basis for both the Asnaro bus developed with the former Institute for Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer — now Japan Space Systems — and the Sprint bus with JAXA. Nextar is a standard small-satellite bus system applicable for international markets so that it will have a strong appeal especially to emerging space countries.

JAXA has flown four HTV cargo delivery missions to the international space station, with three more planned through 2016. How do you see Japan’s role in the space station and future human spaceflight programs evolving? 

Specific discussion will be started in the International Space Exploration Forum in January 2014. Human space exploration hereafter will be considered in this framework. Japanese human spaceflight activities also will be discussed, including additional cargo delivery missions after HTV-7 and post-space station after 2020.

There is a fundamental instinct for human beings in every country for more distant and longer stays in space. It is presumed by JAXA that human space development will be performed via international cooperation in an international framework. JAXA will contribute unique technologies and engineering to realize international human space missions. Some technologies, including the Japanese-developed proximity operations system for Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo capsule, have been vital in international space programs. So in human space development there is an indispensable presence of Japanese technologies to contribute within an international framework.

What is JAXA’s relationship to Japan Space Systems?

JAXA cooperates with Japan Space Systems. Generally, the space budget is very limited so JAXA should work in cooperation with other organizations.

How do you envision the role of the private sector evolving in government-led space development and utilization efforts?

Japanese space development is operating with 90 percent government and 10 percent commercial funding so it is a matter of great urgency to increase commercial participation and demand. JAXA will strongly promote space utilization synergistically with partner companies and organizations under a collaborative model.

There have been cases where private companies developed programs according to JAXA’s requests. However, I am interested in finding out what additional potential there is for private companies to perform effectively in Japan.

On the utilization side, JAXA established the New Business Promotion Office for nonspace companies to start space-related activities. There are 20 or 30 companies under a strict confidentiality policy. 

How does your experience in the steel industry apply as you take on the challenges of managing Japan’s civil space activities?

Engineering management including delays and cost increases in the steel industry is the same as with other mega-projects including space projects. Japanese strengths in system engineering are the common core with space development. 

Japan and the United States recently concluded a space situational awareness data sharing agreement that could be expanded to include data from JAXA’s space surveillance assets. How do you envision JAXA’s contribution?

There have been no specific actions yet, since the agreement has been just concluded. Everything that JAXA can do is under consideration for space situational awareness including ground data and small space debris tracking and so on.