Boyhood 'Thunderbirds' fan becomes father of Japan's Epsilon rocket

September 14, 2013

By AKIRA HATANO/ Staff Writer

As a child, Yasuhiro Morita loved to watch the 1960s British science-fiction TV series “Thunderbirds,” particularly the part showing a rocket being launched with just the push of a button.

Young Morita was so excited that he knew then and there that he would devote his life to studying rocketry.

Now 55, Morita is one of the leading engineers who helped the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) develop the Epsilon rocket that was launched from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Sept. 14. He was the project manager of the launch.

After studying at the University of Tokyo, Morita worked in rocket development at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and JAXA. He quickly became one of the “grandchild disciples” of Hideo Itokawa (1912-1999), who is called the “father of Japan’s rockets.”

Morita went on to serve as team leader in the development of M-V rockets, one of which sent the unmanned space probe Hayabusa into outer space in 2003. The Hayabusa returned to the Earth in 2010, after collecting samples on an asteroid named Itokawa.

In 2006, the government scrapped the M-V program due to the high cost of launching the rockets: 7.5 billion yen ($75 million). Morita was crestfallen, but undeterred.

“If money is a problem, I will drastically reduce the cost (for the next phase of rockets),” he recalls thinking at that time.

The manufacturing and launching costs of the Epsilon were half that of the M-V rocket, thanks in part to the automatic body inspection system by artificial intelligence and the “mobile control” that can be conducted with only two personal computers.

And only six days are needed to prepare a launch of the Epsilon.

While developing the Epsilon program, Morita also made time for children visiting a science museum in central Tokyo.

“I hope that when you become adults, my job will have made it possible for anyone to easily go into space,” Morita told the children, “like the rockets in ‘Thunderbirds,’ which flew into space every week.”

By AKIRA HATANO/ Staff Writer
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Epsilon project manager Yasuhiro Morita talks to reporters at the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Sept. 13.  (Ryo Ikeda)

Epsilon project manager Yasuhiro Morita talks to reporters at the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Sept. 13. (Ryo Ikeda)

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  • Epsilon project manager Yasuhiro Morita talks to reporters at the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Sept. 13.  (Ryo Ikeda)

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