A bigger piece of the commercial-launch market

If the International Space Station is Japan's best hope to enter the arena of manned spaceflight, the country is hitching its hopes for entree into a wider range of unmanned launches - including a bigger piece of the commercial-launch market - to a rocket known as the H2-A.

Initiated in 1996, the H2-A program is an outgrowth of Japan's attempt to build increasingly capable rockets with no help from any other country. Its predecessor, the H2, was the National Space Development Agency's first attempt at designing a commercial-class liquid-fueled rocket from scratch. The first H2 was launched in 1994. Since then, seven more have been launched - the last a highly publicized failure that left a Japanese telecommunications satellite in a useless orbit.

For a country with a low tolerance for failure the H2 has committed a much greater commercial sin; it is so "overengineered" that is has priced itself out of the market. The H2 costs from $150 million to $180 million per launch, much higher than the cost for a US, European, or Russian booster. The objective with the H2-A is to cut those costs by half. NASDA is spearheading the redesign and must help send resupply capsules to the International Space Station, as well as to the Rocket Systems Corp. RSC has orders for 23 H2-As and contracts to launch 20 satellites for Hughes Space and Communications Inc. and Space Systems Loral Inc. The first H2-A launch, carrying a European Space Agency payload, is scheduled for January or February 2000.

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