The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
Rocketplane over Hokkaido
Rocketplane’s long-term plans for cooperation with HASTIC include flights of their XP vehicle from a future spaceport in Hokkaido. (credit: Rocketplane Ltd.)

Rocketplane is big in Japan

It is not uncommon for foreign dignitaries to visit Congress or even give an address there. Less common, but certainly not unheard of, are ceremonies for foreign visitors in state legislatures. Still, it was a bit unusual to hear that Japanese officials were recognized on the floor of the Oklahoma State Senate in February. What drew a pair of distinguished Japanese officials to Oklahoma City?

The two, Ryojiro Akiba and Kenichi Ito, were recognized for signing up as the first commercial microgravity research users of the state’s spaceport, which will host flights by Rocketplane Ltd. as early as next year. (To perhaps help illustrate that there are other ties between Oklahoma and Japan, the citation was presented by state senator Randy Bass, a former professional baseball player who spent much of his career in Japan.) What brought the Japanese together with Rocketplane was a desire to provide new research opportunities and to help open the door to space commercialization in Japan—not to mention a little bit of luck.

Akiba and HASTIC

Akiba and Ito discussed their work, and their cooperation with Rocketplane, over lunch in Washington, DC a few days later, during a break in the annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference. Akiba, as it turns out, is one of the pioneers of the Japanese space program, tracing his involvement in it back to 1955, when he worked on small sounding rockets at the University of Tokyo. “We succeeded in participating in the first International Geophysical Year [in 1958] with our own sounding rocket, reaching an altitude of about 60 kilometers,” he recalled.

Akiba is one of the pioneers of the Japanese space program, tracing his involvement in it back to 1955, when he worked on small sounding rockets at the University of Tokyo.

Akiba played a role in a number of other major Japanese space projects, including the launch of the first Japanese satellite in 1970. By the 1990s he had reached the top ranks of the Japanese space program, serving for several years as director-general of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), then a free-standing space agency that has since been incorporated into the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). In 1996 he retired and became a professor at the Hokkaido Institute of Technology.

At the time the university has access to a world-class microgravity drop shaft located in a coal mine in Hokkaido. The Japan Microgravity Center was a large facility that could provide up to ten seconds of microgravity. However, in 2000 the mine—and with it the drop shaft—closed. In a bid to keep the drop shaft open, several organizations on the island joined forces and created a new organization, the Hokkaido Aerospace Science and Technology Incubation Center (HASTIC), with Akiba as its president, to try and take over operation of the facility.

While that effort ultimately failed, HASTIC, a nonprofit organization since February 2003, has found other ways to support space research on Hokkaido. It replaced the drop shaft with a 50-meter drop tower to perform smaller-scale microgravity experiments. HASTIC has also supported educational projects on microgravity and other aerospace topics in area universities. “At two universities in Hokkaido, we established three courses in aerospace engineering” including studies of rocket and satellite development, said Ito, the vice president and executive director of HASTIC.

HASTIC has branched out into other areas, including hybrid rocket propulsion, something that had been long ignored in Japan. “After 1960, no one noticed hybrid rockets,” said Akiba. With a little seed money from JAXA, HASTIC engineers developed a small hybrid engine, called the Cascaded Multistage Impinging-jet (CAMUI), capable of about 500 newtons of thrust. HASTIC has performed several flights of the engine, and is working on larger engines for use in meteorological and microgravity sounding rocket flights.

The Rocketplane connection

It was neither the microgravity research nor the hybrid engine that initially drew the attention of Rocketplane, though. In 2005 HASTIC was starting up a new project, the Aerospace Plane Research Center, and planned to hold a symposium in Hokkaido that summer to inaugurate the effort. While most of the symposium was devoted to Japanese research, one of the symposium tracks focused on international research in hypersonic flight, including presentations from NASA, European, and Australian scientists and a representative from the commercial sector.

“So I discovered by chance—just by being a last-minute fill-in speaker—that there is a center of excellence for microgravity research, all these researchers looking for opportunities. Everything has kind of gone from there,” said Lauer.

The organizers had hoped to get Burt Rutan, but he was busy working on SpaceShipTwo and thus unavailable. “They had another speaker lined up who was going to come and talk in his place, but he canceled at the last minute and left a big hole in their program,” explained Chuck Lauer, director of business development at Rocketplane. Through an intermediary, the organizers contacted Lauer, asking him if he could find someone, but on such short notice he couldn’t. Just three days before the symposium was scheduled to begin, Lauer got a call in Oklahoma: could he come to Japan and speak at the symposium? “I’ve loved Japan and Japanese culture all my life, and I’ve always wanted to go there, so I thought it was a great opportunity,” he said.

Despite the short notice, the meeting turned out to be exceedingly productive. Lauer presented on the efforts of his company and other entrepreneurial space efforts, then struck up a conversation with a Japanese researcher during the post-symposium reception. “He asked a question about what we can do to get three or four minutes of microgravity,” Lauer said. “So I discovered by chance—just by being a last-minute fill-in speaker—that there is a center of excellence for microgravity research, all these researchers looking for opportunities. Everything has kind of gone from there. There’s a strong synergy between what we’re doing and what they’re doing.”

While the agreement between HASTIC and Rocketplane will initially feature flights of Japanese experiments on Rocketplane XP flights from Oklahoma, both anticipate eventually conducting flights of experiments and passengers from Hokkaido itself. HASTIC has identified one airport on the island that may be suitable for those flights.

Why fly from Japan? During an earlier presentation at the FAA conference, Lauer said that the number one feature people desire in a space flight is the view. “View is first, microgravity is second,” he said. “The view that most people would want to see is the view of their home from space.” For Asian tourists, flying from Oklahoma would give them a view of central North America, a relatively unfamiliar region. However, flying from Hokkaido, tourists would be able to see not just Japan but also Korea and portions of China.

21st century black ships

Those flights won’t take place any time soon, though: Lauer estimated that the earliest Rocketplane would be conducting any flights from Hokkaido is 2012. One hurdle is the lack of a commercial space regulatory structure there. “Currently there’s no equivalent of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act in Japan,” he said, referring to the legislation passed in 2004 that clarified the regulatory environment for commercial passenger spaceflight in the US. “Part of the reason that this is a long-term proposition is because the regulatory infrastructure doesn’t exist now. They don’t even have the equivalent of a Commercial Space Launch Act for expendable commercial rockets.”

“There’s no private sector money invested in space,” said Ito. “That’s the culture in Japan.”

That lack of enabling regulation is systemic of the problem with Japanese culture in general, which has seen space as being the province solely of the government. “There’s no private sector money invested in space,” said Ito. “That’s the culture in Japan.” The Japanese drew an analogy to the “black ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry, which opened up Japanese ports to the Western world 150 years ago. Rocketplane’s vehicles, they hoped, might be the 21st century equivalent of that, opening up Japan to the potential of commercial spaceflight. (As Lauer later noted, Rocketplane’s spacecraft, while sporting a white paint job today, was black—actually charcoal gray—in an earlier design iteration that used thermal tiles.)

Near the end of the interview, Akiba was asked if he would be willing to take a flight on the Rocketplane XP. “If it is safe enough,” he quipped.

“It would be an honor” to fly him, Lauer said. “Dr. Akiba goes back to the dawn of the Space Age, and to be able to give him a space flight would be the capstone of his career.”


Home