29 October 2003
Opinion - Other (None)
China Struts After Successful Crewed Space Flight
Overtaken Japan put on the spot
by Patrick Collins
by Dr. Patrick Collins

China’s triumph in flying Yang Liwei safely to orbit and back is a great leap forward in returning to the position it held up until 1800 – the major industrial power on Earth. Although of greater political than economic significance in itself, the success demonstrated Chinese engineers’ mastery of a range of sophisticated aerospace technologies, and reinforced the growing worldwide perception that China is fast overtaking Japan as the economic leader of north-east Asia.

Also of great importance is the lift that it will have given to the spirits of young Chinese, seeing their country as “Number Three in Space.” And at a time of ever-declining interest in engineering careers among young people in the rich countries, one should not underestimate the importance of giving the young an exciting vision of the future. For example, educational achievement in the United States has never returned to the peak it reached during the Apollo project.

Shuichiro Yamanouchi, the head of Japan’s newly merged space agency JAXA, dismissed Yang’s flight as being of no economic importance; he said that Japan would stick to improving the reliability of its technology for commercial use. Many Japanese commentators disagree with this view – including senior members of the space industry. And unfortunately it’s disingenuous, since there is very little commercial demand for satellite launches, and Japan’s expendable launch vehicle costs are too high to be competitive. Japanese space policy makers are still in denial about the fact that Japan cannot compete with China when using the same technology, since China’s labour costs are just a few percent of Japan’s.

So how should Japan respond? Some members of JAXA argue that Japan too should make a capsule to fly people on top of its H2A rocket, and they’ve even published a book on the idea. But this would be disastrous. First, Japan would be seen to be copying China, but five to 10 years behind! Second, even if successful it would cost Japan ten times what it cost China. Third, the result would have no economic value, since ELV launch costs are too high to generate significant passenger revenues. So every flight (which would be for just a few government staff) would merely be an additional cost to Japanese taxpayers - who already carry the highest debt in the world, due to their government’s taste for spending their money on economically worthless activities.

What Japan should do is build one or more passenger-carrying sub-orbital vehicles. This would be cheap, quick, technologically straightforward and popular with the Japanese people – because it would allow anyone to travel to space (for a few minutes) at low cost.

Unfortunately, like other parts of the Japanese government, space policy makers are strongly opposed to doing what the general public wants. The “democratic revolution” which both of the main parties in the current general election campaign are promising in order to revitalise the sinking Japanese economy, needs to come to the space industry too. Providing services that the public want to buy – what an idea – will work wonders for the Japanese space industry, for the spirits of the long-suffering Japanese people, and for the economy.
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Patrick Collins 29 October 2003
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