Japan pushes to catch up with US and Europe in space. Latest launch was perfect as usual, though technology is not on the cutting edge

Japan, a late-comer to the space race, is working modestly and methodically to catch up with the United States and Western Europe. Peach Blossom, the 16th satellite lofted from the Space Center on Tanega shima Island, has been sending back photographs of a quality comparable to those of Landsat, the American earth observation satellite.

Television stations throughout Japan showed crisp pictures of Nagasaki Airport and the surrounding seas, including a bridge just 24 feet wide. Peach Blossom whooshed into space Feb. 19, upholding Japan's record of perfect launchings. But at an earlier press conference, Vice-President S. Sonoyama of the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) was modest. ``It's been only 30 years since we got started in space, and we have learned a lot from the United States,'' he said. ``We have not yet got to the point of developing and contributing a new technology to the world.''

Because of the Challenger tragedy and mishaps in the French Ariane program last year, the world news media have tended to turn their attention to Japan and its perfect record in space launchings. Publicity has also been given to the H-2 rocket, which will use all-Japanese technology and which will be ready by 1992 to loft a two-ton satellite into geostationary orbit.

The H-2 is based on 20-year-old US Delta rocket technology and is carrying that technology to a point where US licenses will no longer be required. In that sense, Japan will have caught up. ``But the US is not standing still,'' Mr. Sonoyama said.

With a budget of just over $666 million or only about one-tenth the US space budget, NASDA scientists think the 21st century will arrive before Japan develops its own reusable reentry space vehicle.

``Our chief advantage today is our reputation for reliability,'' Sonoyama said. ``Our costs per launch are still too high to make us commercially competitive.''

He figures that the N-2 rocket that launched Peach Blossom will put a satellite in geostationary orbit for $200,000 per kilogram. But Ariane or the American Delta Thor rocket can do the same for less than one-third the cost. ``We have to bring costs down to 8 million yen [$13,333] per kilogram to be commercially viable.''

He is optimistic that costs will diminish dramatically once the H-2 is operational. The H-2 is a two-stage rocket for which a new liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine is being developed. It represents state-of-the-art technology. But can the rocket be made to combine high reliability and safety with low cost? NASDA may have to be prepared to risk failure in its quest to cut costs, a quest that so far it has not had to consider, one of Sonoyama's colleagues said.

Private companies are associated with the government in NASDA, and they are eager for the satellite-launch program to become commercially viable as soon as possible, said an official of Keidanren's Space Development Headquarters. (Keidanren is Japan's most influential business lobby.) This official said that the publicity given to the American and French failures last year may have exaggerated the size of the market.

China is offering launches, and so is the USSR. By the time the H-2 rocket is operational, the official said, the Americans and the French will have ironed out their problems, and the Japanese may have to scramble around to line up orders.

Japan's real entry into the space age will not come until the 21st century, he said, when it will have some kind of reusable reentry vehicle.

``And by that time, the government may be more interested in super-supersonic travel, like the Orient Express project [linking Los Angeles with Tokyo in two hours], than satellites or space stations,'' the official said.

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