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A Test Site for Academic Study and Space Research

Q. In 1962, the Kagoshima Space Center (now Uchinoura Space Center) opened in Kagoshima prefecture. What was your impression on your first visit?

Hideo Itokawa with the Kappa-8L Rocket (1962)
Hideo Itokawa with the Kappa-8L Rocket (1962)

I visited there for the first time in August 1962, as a member of the test launch team for the Kappa-8L rocket. It was the first experiment since the previous May, when an explosion destroyed the Kappa-8-10 in Michikawa. Fortunately, nobody was injured in that accident. However, as the rockets’ power increased, we were required to improve safety precautions at our test site, and as a result, we had to cancel all the experiments scheduled in Michikawa. After the accident, test launches were restricted to the Kagoshima Space Center (KSC), which had been under construction since 1961. Consequently, the completion was rushed, and even involved the generous participation of members of the local Women’s Association in the construction work. I don’t think it would have been possible to restart the experiments in just three months had it not been for the cooperation of the locals.

Back then, Uchinoura was very hard to get to. I used to take the overnight train, Blue Train Hayabusa, which took about 22 hours to get from Tokyo to Nishi Kagoshima. After that, I changed to a local train and then took a bus. It took me a whole day to reach the KSC. And the bus ride wasn’t easy. The roads were rough, covered by stones, and the bus was very old – it may have been a rebuilt scrapped bus. The ride was so bumpy, my guts were in knots. After a few hours of this, I was always worn out by the time I arrived at the space center. (laugh)

Q. What is your evaluation of the Uchinoura Space Center?

Uchinoura Space Center
Uchinoura Space Center

The Uchinoura Space Center (USC) was established as a test site to launch rockets for academic study and space research. Today still, the objective of the space center remains the same. I think it’s rare and unique for a space center to be built for academic purposes. In principle, educational outcomes have to be open to the public, so for the first while the USC did not turn down any visitors. You know, Dr. Werner von Braun, a key player in the implementation of the U.S. Apollo program, visited the space center, too. Also, to observe Halley’s Comet, which flew close to Earth from 1985 to 1986, the space agencies of the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan worked together, and the conference between the four space agencies was held in Kagoshima prefecture. During the conference, the participants visited the USC and were surprised by the level of openness to visitors.

I hear that the launch site is now closed to the public, but in my opinion, keeping things that have an academic purpose confidential is nonsense. Engineering is the pursuit of versatility, and its outcomes – new technologies – serve the public in broad ways in real life. The foundation of engineering is the wisdom and knowledge of humanity. I think wisdom and knowledge naturally spread on their own in due course, and therefore, it seems to me that keeping these secret is merely stalling for time. However, these days, there seems to be not much choice about this for some reason.

Seamless Development of Solid-Fuel Rocket Technology

Q. The new Epsilon launch vehicle is scheduled for launch this year. What do you think of this rocket?

Epsilon launch vehicle (conceptual image)
Epsilon launch vehicle (conceptual image)

The development of the M-V launch vehicle, the predecessor of the Epsilon, stopped with the M-V-7 in September 2006, after the high cost of production became an issue. But we didn’t want to put an end to solid-fuel rocket technology, which had been maintained and passed on from the time of the Pencil Rocket. So, after the M-V was scrapped, we held a workshop every few months with Prof. Yasuhiro Morita, who is now the Epsilon launch vehicle project manager, and other colleagues. At first our primary research focus was reducing the cost of rocket development, but after some time we started working on the next-generation solid propellant rocket. I think the Epsilon launch vehicle is the result of these workshops.

At the workshops, we discussed using new technologies, such as new materials, nanotechnology and IT, and Prof. Morita really applied information technology to the Epsilon. The launch control of the Epsilon will be carried out with just two computers. I think this was achieved thanks to his great dedication. Japan has liquid propellant launch vehicles, the H-IIA and the H-IIB. But solid rockets and liquid rockets have different merits, and they are not comparable. I hope the two can coexist in accordance with different objectives. So, I really hope that the launch of the first Epsilon launch vehicle is successful.

Q. How do you envision future rockets after the Epsilon?

Two-stage spaceplane (conceptual image)
Two-stage spaceplane (conceptual image)

I think it will be feasible to build a spaceplane that can take off from and land at airports, just like an airplane. It will combine features of an aircraft and a spacecraft. Currently, satellites and probes are assembled on the ground and launched on rockets. Before launch, they are tested to make sure they can withstand the heavy vibration during launch and later the space environment. These environment tests are very costly. If it becomes possible to transfer the components to an orbital outpost by spaceplane for assembly in space, such large-scale environment tests will no longer be needed. In addition, the load on structures in the weightless environment of space is extremely small, so the strength of structures can be much weaker than on the ground. If a spaceplane can make dozens of trips to transfer components, the cost and risk will be reduced to a great degree. I think that such an aircraft launch system will be feasible in the next 50 years.

A Means of Sustaining Human Life

Q. What attracts you to rocket development today?

Ryojiro Akiba with the 500TVC rocket motor (1965) Ryojiro Akiba with the 500TVC rocket motor (1965)

Today, concerns about energy resources are serious. For humanity to continue to survive for a long time, we have no choice but to utilize resources beyond the Earth. Only by doing so can we find a way to sustain our species. Rockets are a means to go to space. So, in that sense, you can say that rocket development provides the means to increase the sustainability of humanity. That is the attraction of rocket development.

Q. What do you think is the main problem of Japanese rocket development?

It is a fact that very few people understand that space transportation plays a vital role in the sustainability of humanity. Looking ahead to 100 years from now, I hope our nation’s motivation to develop this technology will grow.

Another problem is that the technology from the time of the Pencil Rocket has been passed down as is. The bottom line is, people now are too gullible to be skeptical. They should start with questioning our old ways, and be motivated to improve them. In summary, I think that it is important to go back to the first principles of the technology.

Bringing Excitement to Space Development

Q. What are you expectations for the future of Japanese space development?

Test launch of the hybrid rocket CAMUI (courtesy of HASTIC)
Test launch of the hybrid rocket CAMUI (courtesy of HASTIC)

With national finances in such a poor state, many of those who are involved in space development are suffering from budget shortages. They don’t seem to think that it’s their job to generate revenue. If there is no budget from the government, you might as well try to expand your business and look for other income. You should develop the space industry not just for your own country but also for other countries globally, in order to meet demand worldwide. That’s how Japanese space development should go.

After retiring from the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), I served as the President of the Hokkaido Aerospace Science and Technology Incubation Center (HASTIC) and helped with a project led by the private sector to develop a hybrid rocket. What I realized then was that future rocket development will require commercial technology, where low risk and high return are essential. If affordable and reliable technology can be developed, it will be possible to take orders for launch and exploration from around the world. As an initial step, I would love to see the implementation of a spaceplane.

Q. What will JAXA’s role in it be?

International diplomacy in the technology sector, such as the International Space Station, should be led by JAXA, as it always has been. However, in regards to basic R&D, I hope that JAXA will establish an environment that encourages the participation of universities and private companies. For example, I think that it is JAXA’s role to establish a system to encourage private companies to conduct low-cost development, for instance, by letting them use JAXA’s facilities and intellectual property more broadly.

Q. Finally, could you give a message to people of the younger generation?

Space transportation technology is still at the development stage, so I want them to work to advance it further. To do so, I recommend that they not become experts, as it is sometimes important to look at things from a non-expert’s point of view. For example, it may be a good idea to observe living things, such as animals or insects, based on the principles of physics and dynamics. Look at birds perching on a tree. They don’t need a runway to take off. They can also land while decelerating. Birds use lift generated by their wings to fly, and so do insects with wings, such as dragonflies. I think human beings should learn more from animals and insects.

I also want to say to them, “Pull yourselves together!” I believe that Japan should lead the world. I do hope that young people feel the same. They could be enthusiastic about developing a new launch system and taking orders from the around world for satellite launches and space exploration, for example. Unless someone makes a start and takes action, neither the nation nor those around them will move forward. I hope that young people will make space development more and more exciting.

Related links: History of Japanese Space Research (Japanese language only)
Related links: Pencil Rocket Story (Japanese language only)

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