Editorial: Japanese Space Program Needs Focus

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The Japanese government appears intent on pleasing everybody with its space budget request for 2006, but the nation’s industry, ministries and citizens ultimately would be better served if Tokyo would focus on fewer programs and provide the funding necessary to execute them properly.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which coordinates space funding across seven government ministries, is seeking 277.8 billion yen ($2.52 billion) for space activity in 2006, a 6.7 percent increase over 2005. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which consumes the largest share of space funding, would get 200.3 billion yen, a 13.5 percent increase over the current year.

That sounds great , but if recent history is any indication, the proposed increase will disappear by the time the budget is finally ratified next spring by the Diet, Japan’s parliament. That was the case last year, when a proposed 13-percent increase for space activity ended up being a substantial decrease. In fact, Japanese space budgets have been flat or declining for the past five to six years.

As a result, programs across the board are being delayed. These include launch vehicles, the Gosat greenhouse gas monitoring satellite, the Selene lunar probe, and in all likelihood, several others. Meanwhile, Japan has been hammered in recent years by satellite and rocket failures, and Japanese officials have acknowledged that budget cuts have been a major contributor to the problem.

2006 could turn out to be the year that Japan reverses the downward budgetary trend. That would be nice, but so far there is little evidence to suggest it will actually happen. MEXT’s request was prepared in consultation with the Ministry of Finance, which will adjust the numbers and submit the updated version to the Diet in December. Although the Finance Ministry at one point raised the possibility of a 20-percent increase in space spending over 2005, it also warned that the best it could guarantee was a 3-percent decrease.

Amid this uncertainty, Japan continues to press ahead with programs that are guaranteed to be expensive and are of dubious value.

Chief among them is the Galaxy Express launcher, which features a first stage based on Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 rocket and a Japanese-built, methane-fueled second stage. This vehicle originally was supposed to replace Japan’s J-1 small launcher, but has morphed over the years to the extent that its capability now appears to overlap with that of Japan’s workhorse H-2A rocket. On top of that, the program is plagued by technical difficulties, cost growth and delays. Other than politics, there seems to be no logical explanation for why Japan continues to pursue the Galaxy Express project.

Japan also plans to invest billions of yen into a space station logistics vehicle known as the HTV and a heavy-lift variant of the H-2A that would be needed to launch the cargo vessel. These projects, questionable under better circumstances, seem downright misguided given the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Japan Experiment Module, the nation’s primary hardware contribution to the space station.

The main purpose of the HTV is to deliver supplies to the Japan Experiment Module, which is designed to launch aboard NASA’s space shuttle. But the shuttle’s manifest is in disarray: the fleet is once again grounded — in all likelihood at least until mid 2006 — and its 2010 target retirement date is inexorably closing in.

Japanese space officials have every right to expect that NASA will live up to its obligation to launch the Japan Experiment Module, and were correct in requesting full funding for that program in 2006. Nevertheless, if living up to its space station agreements involves knowingly putting astronauts at great risk — or spending a few billion dollars over the next three to four years to mitigate that risk — NASA might not be in position to make good on that obligation.

Even assuming the Japanese Experiment Module is launched, it is fair to ask whether it is prudent for Japan to duplicate investments in space station logistics capabilities that already have been made or are planned by Europe, Russia and the United States.

The same goes for the heavy-lift variant of the H-2A, now known as the H-2B. With one of the early justifications for the project — securing Japan’s position in the commercial launch market — having evaporated, the H-2B is now seen as the key to an independent Japanese human spaceflight program. That may well be deemed a goal worthy of pursuing, but let there be no mistake: developing and human-rating the H-2B will be a massive undertaking that in all likelihood will shove aside other space initiatives, such as the Quasi-Zenith satellite navigation and communications system.

Simply put, Japan is trying to do too much in space with too little funding, and the pitfalls of that approach are manifesting themselves in the form of technical failures and delays. A more realistic program that is better aligned with likely budgets, one that is focused on pressing national needs and that complements rather than duplicates investments by Japan’s international partners in space, would be far more productive and rewarding in the long run.