The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has issued a new report on the Galaxy Express (GX) rocket program, and the news once again is not good. The inaugural flight has slipped to 2011, five years later than originally envisioned, due to persistent technical problems with the vehicle’s second-stage engine. The projected cost to develop that engine has nearly tripled, to $292 million, which is more than half the original price tag assigned to the entire program.
The Space Activities Commission, Japan’s top decision-making authority on space programs, is set to issue new guidance on the GX program in the coming weeks. The panel should guide this wasteful project out of existence.
The rationale for the GX has never been convincing. It has been billed as a medium-class launch vehicle that would fill the niche between Japan’s M-5 and the H-2A rockets, but the GX features the immensely powerful RD-180 engine as its core stage. Capable of generating 1 million pounds of thrust, the Russian-built RD-180 is far better suited to a vehicle in the H-2A’s class.
Moreover, JAXA and Galaxy Express Corp., the industrial consortium that will manage the operational GX, still don’t have their stories straight on the target market. On its Web site, JAXA says the GX will primarily launch commercial payloads to sun-synchronous orbit — as if there were such a market — while the company said in the Sept. 29 JAXA report that the vehicle is needed to launch unspecified medium-class Earth observation satellites.
Meanwhile, the program has given JAXA nothing but trouble, siphoning off resources that the cash-strapped agency — whose budgets have declined or stayed flat in most of the past several years — could put to better use. JAXA has delayed several science missions due to its perpetual funding problems, for example.
Under these circumstances, JAXA can ill afford to continue supporting a project whose main strength appears to be the fact that it exists. Japan’s space program would be stronger without it.