Wednesday 24th of July 2024

Space Might Remain Japan’s Final Frontier For Some Time Yet
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Region : North East Asia, Japan, Science & Technology,
Issue : Military Issues,
Japan’s commercial space program faced a setback last month, when its first commercial rocket exploded on the launch pad.

In Western societies, such failures require a certain approach to assess the situation before continuing. In Japan, the business culture is such that management styles may differ considerably between various stakeholders.

Key questions are being asked that go beyond the accident itself, such as what is the Japanese space sector’s approach when there is an accident? What can the policymakers and stakeholders involved in space programs around the world learn from Japanese management techniques? Perhaps there is a need to return to the grassroots of “Wa,” or the “collectivist orientation” of management.

In June 2023, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Tokyo’s Basic Plan on Space Policy and its Space Security Initiative. An analysis of Kishida’s new policy came from the Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy. It was tasked with creating a comprehensive national space policy, controlling the budgets of governmental space programs and keeping watch over commercial space efforts. A dozen or more Japanese ministries and associated organizations are involved in the decision-making process, since they all have a vested interest in successful government and commercial space systems.

The Japanese space industry is both publicly and privately owned in cooperative ventures, with the commercial aspects a more recent development. The traditionalist “Wa” might be missing in the industry between these sectors. Japanese space management is traditionally tied to agreements with the US at the government-to-government level, such as the Artemis Program, a moon exploration program led by America that was established in 2017.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is the main government space agency and it has an impressive, multidecade track record of space experimentation and exploration. Startup businesses have been encouraged to enter Japan’s commercial space sector to help Tokyo compete with other countries. But success is built on building rockets that work.

When Tokyo-based startup Space One last month failed to become Japan’s first private firm to put a satellite into orbit — after its solid-fuel Kairos rocket burst into flames seconds after liftoff — it was therefore a major setback for Japan’s space program and calls into question the way it is run.

The destruction of the 18-meter, 23-tonne Kairos rocket, which was carrying a mock-up of a government spy satellite, might raise questions about the mixing of commercial and spy satellite launches, since in other space programs there is usually a division between the commercial and military uses of space. Early assessments see the commercial engine launch failure in the same way as the January failure of Tokyo’s lunar mission. Then, a Japanese lunar vehicle suffered an engine malfunction on its descent to the moon’s surface and tipped over on landing. Kairos’ subsequent launch pad explosion again pointed to engine problems and, in this case, the catastrophic failure of the space vehicle.
Space One is a Japanese startup backed by the US company Canon Inc. as part of a public-private partnership. Founded in 2018, the company is supported by several investors, including Canon Electronics, IHI Aerospace Engineering, real estate business Shimizu Corp. and the Development Bank of Japan. Its previous launch plans were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

After the explosion last month, Japanese government officials were quick to insist the failed launch nonetheless represented “a big step forward” because the rocket autonomously executed its systems for aborting the flight, just as it was programmed to do.

This comment is reflective of the Japanese management style, which is to highlight the successes, even in failure. Similar comments were made by Japanese officials following the failure of the moon landing attempt, during which one of the two engines on the descent vehicle failed at the last minute. Two serious failures for Japan’s space program in quick succession is seen by some as a highly negative development.

The private sector in Japan hopes to open up the development of space by building momentum toward establishing a human presence on the moon and Mars. The global space industry, which is today worth about $350 billion, could generate revenue of more than $1 trillion by 2040, according to analysis by Morgan Stanley.

Japanese startups are helping to drive growth in specific aspects of the space sector by supplying two tools in particular: robots and satellites. The country’s trend toward commercial space enterprises follows the example set by other nations that have their own commercial space programs, mostly in cooperative groups. However, commercial space enterprises are unlikely to dictate future cooperation in space. International space law says that commercial companies are an extension of the home government’s program. Thus, Japan’s commercial space failures reflect badly on the Japanese government’s space activity.

In this sector, Japan primarily excels in the development of robots to work in orbit. It enjoys a dominant position in the development of robotics in general, according to the International Federation of Robotics. GITAI, a Tokyo space startup whose parent company is based in California, illustrates the collaborative work between US and Japan on commercial space technologies.

GITAI sees massive potential for the use of robots to help develop the rapidly growing space industry, in particular to help astronauts build and maintain bases, either in orbit or on the surface of the moon or Mars.

The rocket explosion is likely to be rigorously investigated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and government auditors. This will take some time. Some Japanese politicians are also questioning how both the lunar landing mission and the Space One launch failed so badly. Parent organizations in the US and other countries involved in Japan’s commercial space industry might need to engage in some contingency planning in the meantime.

Some are saying the Japanese failures call into question the nation’s status as an emerging space power, which could affect its technological competitiveness and future policy decisions.

The Japanese government had hoped the next-generation Space One rocket would allow the country to break into the global satellite-launching business and to further bolster the country’s space exploration capabilities.

At the first glance of Japanese analysts, these were mechanical problems and not human decision-making problems. A shift might now occur in how Japan proceeds with commercial space projects, because accidents such as these cannot continue.

Perhaps a return to a collectivist orientation of “Wa” in space policy is now in order.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC. X: @KarasikTheodore
This article originally appeared in the Eurasia review
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

Follow Us On Twitter

Visitors HTML Hit Counter