Japan’s Proposed Space Budget Would Reverse Years of Decline

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Japanese government authorities are requesting a 6.7 percent funding increase for space activities next year even as they acknowledge that a number of key programs have fallen behind schedule due in part to space budgets that have declined in recent years.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which coordinates space activities across seven government ministries, is seeking 277.8 billion yen ($2.5 billion) overall next year for a wide range of development programs that include launchers and satellite navigation and reconnaissance systems.

The request assumes that Japanese-built hardware for the international space station will be launched aboard NASA space shuttles in spite of the uncertainty surrounding the aging U.S. space transportation system, said Shinichi Isa, deputy director of MEXT’s Space Utilization Division.

The space budget was prepared after consultations with the Finance Ministry, which according to Isa had said a 20 percent increase might be possible. But the Finance Ministry also warned that it could only guarantee a budget containing 97 percent of the funding that was allocated to space activities in 2005, meaning 2006 could see a decrease of 3 percent when all is said and done, Isa said.

The Finance Ministry will make its changes to the MEXT budget request and submit a ratified version to the Japanese parliament in December. The parliament typically passes the government budgets in time for the April 1 start of the Japanese fiscal year.

According to MEXT documents released Aug. 31, the major programs facing delays include: the H-2B heavy-lift rocket, whose first launch has been pushed from 2007 to 2008; the Gosat greenhouse gas monitoring satellite, also delayed from 2007 to 2008; the Selene Moon probe, whose launch has moved from 2006 to 2007; and the GX medium-lift rocket, whose maiden flight has been pushed from next spring to 2008.

Budgetary pressure is the main reason for the delays, although in the case of the GX developmental problems with the second-stage engine, to be fueled by liquid natural gas, also are a factor, Isa said in a Sept. 2 interview. The GX, whose first stage is based on Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 launcher, is being developed by Galaxy Express Corp., a Tokyo-based company set up by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Ltd. A Galaxy Express official, reached by telephone Sept. 5, declined to comment either on the budget or the delay.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which consumes the largest portion of the nation’s space budget, is slated to receive 200.3 billion yen next year, an increase of 13.5 percent, to keep its other programs on track following several consecutive years of declining funding, Isa said. “We in MEXT have a kind of critical feeling; JAXA’s budget has been decreasing over the last five to six years and this has made some contribution to accidents and failures,” Isa said.

Highlights of the JAXA budget request for 2006 include the following:

– 53.6 billion yen for the workhorse H-2A launcher and related programs, compared to 36.5 billion yen this year. In addition to the H-2A, these programs include the heavy-lift variant known as the H-2B, and a planned space station cargo transport vehicle known as the HTV.

– 24.5 billion yen for Earth-observation satellites, an increase of 5 billion yen over the current year.

– 27.6 billion yen for space science, compared to the 2005 budget of 21.5 billion yen. Driving the increase is JAXA’s intent to get the Solar-B solar flare satellite launched next year.

“To keep the schedule, we have to push for more resources and budget,” Isa said. “We don’t have any other choice than to request a big increase.”

Lance Gatling, a Tokyo-based aerospace consultant, said the space funding request appears to lack focus and stands to be trimmed substantially by the Finance Ministry given Japan’s overall budgetary problems. “Japan is trying to do a little of everything with a budget that is not conducive to such a broad development effort,” he said.

In a Sept. 7 telephone interview, Gatling said the biggest question marks for Japan’s civil space program are the Japanese Experiment Module and centrifuge for the international space station. Both are slated to launch aboard NASA space shuttles, but with that system now grounded indefinitely and NASA holding firm to plans to retire the fleet by 2010, the future of the Japanese-built hardware is in doubt.

Gatling expressed surprise that under those circumstances, MEXT is still requesting 38.4 billion yen for the Japanese Experiment Modulecompared this year’s 36.2 billion yen budget. “If the [international space station] turns into a tourist hotel, what’s the utility of the H-2B and the HTV? Japan has spent something like $600 million over the last couple of years on [the Japanese Experiment Module] . That’s terrible. There are some serious questions revolving around the [space station] and there are multiple impacts . It’s all mixed up,” Gatling said.

For now, government authorities here are assuming the Japanese Experiment Module will be launched and the budget request reflects that, Isa said. “Our attitude toward the [space station] is that at a minimum NASA should keep its promises and commitments to each of its partners and we believe that NASA will not change its commitment. If there are some difficulties, let’s have some discussions. If there is a decision to cut [the Japanese Experiment Module] we don’t regard that as the final decision,” Isa said.

Meanwhile, two space programs not administered by JAXA faired relatively well in the budget request, according to government and industry officials. The Information Gathering Satellites, a reconnaissance program run by the prime minister’s cabinet office, is slated for a budget increase of nearly 7 percent, to 66.6 billion yen. Of this, about 21.1 billion yen is for operations, with the remainder for new satellite and technology development, according to Yasuhiro Itakura, a research officer at the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center. The finance ministry and cabinet office have informally agreed that the program will continue to receive at least 60 billion yen per year through the end of the decade, Itakura said in an Aug. 30 telephone interview.

According to the MEXT budget documents, the government is requesting roughly 10 billion yen on behalf of four ministries next year for another major initiative, the the 170 billion-yen Quasi Zenith Satellite System for navigation and communications. Satoshi Tsukibashi, deputy director of Space and Technology Policy at the Japan Business Federation, the nation’s largest and most powerful business lobby , said that funding would be sufficient for the work that will be necessary next year to keep the program on schedule.

The system’s three satellites are planned for launch in 2008 and 2009.