Editorial: Cancel the GX

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An advisory committee established by Japan’s new ruling party to identify wasteful spending has seized on an appropriate target in the Galaxy Express (GX) rocket, which has been in development for the better part of a decade despite its lack of a clear purpose. The Government Administration Reform Committee recommended Nov. 17 that the overbudget GX be canceled next year. It would be refreshing and beneficial if that actually happens.

Originally slated to debut in 2006, the GX is at least five years behind schedule and its cost has nearly doubled — to an estimated 70 billion yen ($788 million). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, has struggled with the rocket’s liquid natural gas-fueled upper-stage engine, which has gone through several design changes and whose estimated development cost has more than doubled, to 35 billion yen.

To be sure, there’s nothing unique about problems on rocket development programs, which are notoriously difficult and expensive. But the GX distinguishes itself as a vehicle in search of a mission.

Early on in the program, JAXA and the GX industrial consortium — Galaxy Express Corp., led by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries — planned to use the Russian-designed NK-33 engine to power the vehicle’s first stage. They later switched to the Russian-built RD-180 in a move that might have been intended to reduce program risk: Unlike the NK-33, the RD-180 is currently in service on the Lockheed Martin-designed Atlas 5 rocket, with a solid track record. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is responsible for the GX’s first-stage plumbing.

But the RD-180 is far more powerful than the NK-33; it generates nearly 1 million pounds of thrust. JAXA still characterizes the GX as a medium-lift rocket, but the RD-180-powered first stage puts it roughly in the same class as Japan’s workhorse H-2A.

The H-2A is a proven vehicle that, with straightforward upgrades, should be able to handle the largest payloads envisioned by the Japanese government. The vehicle also is capable of handling most commercial communications satellites, although its high price tag and operating constraint — agreements with fishing unions in the area surrounding Japan’s Tanegashima launch center limit the H-2A to two narrow launch windows per year — make it a non-factor in that market. Even if JAXA and Galaxy Express Corp. were able to field a competitively priced GX — a big “if” — the vehicle likely would face the same launch-window constraints as the H-2A.

That GX work has quietly continued year after year is testimony to the difficulty of killing programs once they have started in earnest, and to the lobbying clout of the GX industrial consortium. But that in and of itself is hardly justification to soldier on, even with minimal funding, especially when there are so many other pressing items on Japan’s space agenda.

The removal last year of a longstanding ban on military space activities has opened the door to a number of new and important capabilities for Japan. At or near the top of the list is space-based missile warning, a requirement that gets reinforced every time neighboring North Korea conducts a missile or nuclear weapon test. Meanwhile, JAXA’s science programs continue to get stretched out due to chronic cash shortages.

Japan, like every other country, will never have enough money to do everything it wants to do in space; the best it can do is prioritize its needs effectively and focus resources on the most pressing of those. Part of that process is weeding out programs like GX that sap funds from other efforts and yet stand little chance of making a real difference.