Broad, open public debate is needed to define the future of Japan’s space development and set clear space policy goals.
Japan’s flagship H-2A rocket successfully put a South Korean satellite into orbit on May 18. It was the first commercial satellite launch for a foreign customer by the maker of the rocket, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., and by Japan’s space industry, for that matter. The memorable event is an important first step.
One crucial element is missing, however, from Japan’s space development. That is a grand vision about how this first step should be used to develop more competitive rocket technology and what should be achieved by using such technology.
A new “space strategy office” will be set up within the Cabinet Office as the headquarters for Japan’s space exploration and play the central role in developing a future vision for the nation’s space program.
It is a formidable challenge to nurture a commercially viable rocket business.
Only about 20 commercial launches of geostationary satellites are carried out globally every year. The world’s leading space powers, such as Europe, the United States, Russia and China, are vying for these contracts.
U.S. startups offering lower-cost satellite launches are also keen competitors in the market, where Japan is struggling to gain ground due to the relatively high prices of its services.
Still, the H-2A’s latest launch, which was the 15th straight successful one and raised the rocket’s success rate to 95 percent, is an encouraging piece of news for the Japanese space industry.
We hope Japan will establish a solid presence in the international market for satellite launches. To do so, it needs to further improve the reliability of its rocket technology, its main competitive advantage, while lowering the cost of launches.
For the time being, Japan’s rocket business will have to depend on satellite launches for the government and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to secure most of the four or so missions per year needed for stable operations. But it should not remain dependent on public-sector demand for long.
Japan’s space development program is now at a turning point.
The basic space law, which was enacted in 2008, calls for a shift of the space policy focus toward promoting effective use of space technology, including national security purposes.
A research council of experts has been discussing new basic plans and new government systems for space exploration.
The envisioned space strategy office will be responsible for policy coordination for the entire government and work with a new space policy committee, a panel of private-sector experts, to craft the nation’s space strategy.
Discussions at the expert panel have so far been closed to the public. That’s troubling even though the panel comprises members recruited from the private sector.
The panel has worked out a plan focused on the development of a new, Japanese global positioning system (GPS) based on a “quasi-zenith” satellite system. But there has been no serious debate on such fundamental issues as whether Japan should pursue manned space missions or what should be long-term goals for the nation’s space program.
The planned new organizations should have greater transparency to promote broad public debate on these and other key issues.
On the international front, the operation of the International Space Station, a multinational project in which Japan is taking part, will end in 2020. While major space powers are beginning to hold talks on the next big international project, emerging countries are embarking on their own space programs.
We need to develop a new future vision for our activities in outer space. It should be a future in which Japan’s space program will help improve our safety and living standards and contribute to the well-being of people around the world through exploration of celestial objects and observation of our planet.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 19
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