Quietly, Japan has established itself as a power in the aerospace industry

By Eric Berger

An H-2B rocket is moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 2 at the Tanegashima facility in southern Japan.
Enlarge / An H-2B rocket is moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 2 at the Tanegashima facility in southern Japan.

TOKYO—In early September, the island nation of Japan was doing Japan things. One day, Typhoon Jebi roared ashore near Osaka and Kobe, breaking historical wind records. Early the next morning in Tokyo, as thick clouds from Jebi’s outer bands raced overhead, an offshore earthquake rattled softly but perceptibly through the city.

The capital city’s skies remained a bleak gray a few hours later as we entered the headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the city’s bustling Shinagawa area. Men in suits gestured us forward, bowing as we passed, down a corridor to an elevator. After riding up 27 floors to the top of the building, more men in suits ushered our group into a long, formal meeting room. Along one wall, a bank of windows looked to the southwest. From here, on a clear day, the iconic Mount Fuji dominates the distant horizon. But not this day.

A handful of reporters had been invited here to meet with MHI's chief executive, Shunichi Miyanaga, or Miyanaga-san as he is known throughout this building and beyond. The firm had paid our not-inconsiderable travel expenses so that we might learn more about the industrial conglomerate’s various businesses and its long-range plans to remain globally competitive.

I had come specifically to better understand Japan’s future in rocketry and how this nation and its aerospace enterprise seeks to remain relevant in a rapidly changing environment that no longer defers to established, respected firms. To understand this, one must know MHI, because for the better part of three decades, the company has served as Japan’s chief rocket builder.

A unique history

Quietly, Japan has established itself as a power in the aerospace industry, with a long history and considerable ambition. Only three countries reached orbit before Japan did nearly half a century ago. Today, with questions about the reliability of relations with the United States (which some here view as a fading force) and worries about North Korea, the country is taking steps to bolster its presence in space with key military assets. Within a few years, Japan intends to have its own GPS system and a network of military satellites.

Seated around a wooden, oval-shaped table, we awaited the man responsible for getting those Japanese assets safely into space. Miyanaga-san lacks the star power of Elon Musk, fortune of Jeff Bezos, or public bluster of Russia’s Dmitry Rogozin. He gives few keynotes at major aerospace conferences. Instead, he is largely an unknown in the space community. But his rockets are no less reliable than any other nation. In fact, they are highly capable, with an admirable record for launching on time.

MHI Chief Executive Shunichi Miyanaga.
Enlarge / MHI Chief Executive Shunichi Miyanaga.

MHI is totally different from almost every other rocket company in the world. Aerospace is a small part of MHI, representing only about 1 percent of its business. The heavy industries unit is but one of several core companies in the giant Mitsubishi conglomerate that makes everything from televisions to cars to Kirin beer.

Even so, Japan has set significant goals for MHI’s aerospace business. The country wants Japan to go from launching about four rockets a year, most of which presently fly government payloads, to about eight. This will require MHI to sell its rockets abroad to commercial interests. That initiative comes at a time when SpaceX and other emerging rocket companies are offering low-cost, reusable rockets for satellite launches. Japan’s dependable rocket industry must innovate if it is to have any chance.

When Miyanaga-san ultimately entered the extended conference room, he wore a fitted charcoal suit that complemented his dark, finely combed hair that betrayed only a few flecks of gray. The room was silent and respectful as he began to speak. In broken but passable English, Miyanaga-san worked his way through a series of complicated and at-times confusing charts about the large company he leads. Finally, when he paused for questions after 30 minutes, I touched the red button beside my microphone.

He had talked about his long-range vision in aerospace, I noted. He had said the company’s cost-competitive H3 rocket, under development, was critical to Japan's success. But would that be enough? SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are investing in reusable rockets to bring the cost of spaceflight down. Looking ahead over the next decade, would an expendable rocket like the H3 be enough?

Initially he seemed to dodge the question. Miyanaga-san said Mitsubishi has broad interests in the aerospace sector, from commercial jets to satellite components to technology for mitigating orbital debris. Eventually, however, he did acknowledge that, “SpaceX is, of course, the competition. We are very much confident to compete against them.”

Was the H3 enough for such a competition? “No,” he replied. “The H3 and the successor. H3 has already reached some maturity.”

Whether such a successor really exists was not immediately clear in that boardroom. And after taking a few more questions, Miyanaga-san departed for points unknown. Details about Japan’s plans to compete with SpaceX and its future aspirations in space would have to be found elsewhere in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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Around the time NASA flight controllers were scrambling to land humans on the Moon, Japan was just trying to get its first rocket into space. Beginning in 1966, Nissan and a Japanese research institute began attempting to launch a four-stage, all-solid propellant rocket into orbit. It was a skinny booster, at 16.5 meters tall and with a diameter of less than a meter. It could lift a mere 26kg into orbit.

The first four launches of this Lambda-4S rocket failed until finally, on February 1, 1970, the booster placed a small science satellite named Ohsumi into orbit. Small though it was, this represented no small achievement. Before then, only the Soviet Union, United States, and France had reached orbit. China and Great Britain would follow in the next two years.

For the next two decades, Japan mostly licensed rocket technology from the United States. That changed in 1994, when the nation’s space agency, then named the National Space Development Agency, worked with MHI to develop the H-2 rocket. This considerably advanced booster could lift more than 10 tons to low-Earth orbit and relied on two liquid-fueled stages. Unfortunately, the rocket was expensive, costing nearly $200 million per launch.

Moreover, confidence in the vehicle flagged when the sixth and seventh launches of the H-2 rocket both failed. This experience soured the minds of some in Japan even today, where officials say the Japanese population tends to think that the country’s launch industry blows up a lot of rockets.

This turns out not to be true. After its teething problems with the H-2 rocket, Japanese engineers redesigned the vehicle’s main engine, the LE-7, to make it easier to manufacture, lower its cost, and improve its reliability. Similar modifications were made to other systems, and in 2001—less than two years after the final failure of the H-2 rocket—its successor took flight.

The not-so-creatively named H-2A rocket proved a winner for MHI and Japan’s aerospace industry. It has launched 40 times with 39 successes. It offers similar performance to the H-2 rocket but at half the price; and it led directly to the creation of the larger H-2B rocket in 2009. Japan’s space agency, now known as JAXA, currently uses the H-2B to deliver large cargo supply ships to the International Space Station. This rocket has launched seven times, all successfully.

Beyond their excellent reliability record, MHI also likes to say that it launches rockets on time. And this is generally true: about 80 percent of the time when the company sets a launch date for the customer, that's when the rocket flies.

“We boast that we stick to the launch time,” Ko Ogasawara, the vice president of MHI’s space system division, said. “We never delay. Many launch operators delay their schedule. They say we will launch September 1. But, somehow, something happens. Three months, four months, it is delayed. But we do not.”

Meet "Ko"

If Japan has an internationally known rocket personality, it is Ogasawara. After taking a bullet train 350km from Tokyo to Nagoya, our party met with Ogasawara at the Tobishima Plant that builds the H-2A and H-2B rockets as well as the spacecraft used to supply the space station. In conversation, Ogasawara comfortably spoke English, and his communication was made all the more effective by a bright smile, sparkling eyes, and a bit of wit.

“All of my international friends call me Ko, because my first name is so easy to pronounce,” he said. And so, we all called him Ko. He was eager to talk about the H3 rocket, through which Japan hopes to make another leap in cost reduction like it did from the H-2 to H-2A booster.

Japan has invested heavily in the H3 rocket during its development over the last five years to simplify its design but maintain reliability and performance. If MHI is successful in this, Ko will have an impressive rocket to sell. MHI intends to launch the first H3 rocket, in a configuration without solid rocket boosters, in fiscal year 2020 (which ends March 2021). It will have a performance not quite on par with a Falcon 9 rocket that carries enough reserve fuel to land. The goal is to price the H3 at $51 million per launch in its base configuration.

This would give Japan a rocket that is, roughly at least, cost-competitive with SpaceX’s commercially dominant Falcon 9 rocket. But is the $51 million price point attainable? “Yes,” Ko responded. “I will stick to that. And that is a requirement from our government for the development of H3. So if we cannot do that, if we cannot attain that, our development program is completely stopped.”

Ko Ogasawara, vice president & general manager of Space Systems at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, poses with a model of an H-2A rocket.
Enlarge / Ko Ogasawara, vice president & general manager of Space Systems at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, poses with a model of an H-2A rocket.

So far MHI has not announced any commercial customers for the H3 rocket. But in its efforts to commercialize Japan’s launch industry, MHI has booked a few customers previously for the H-2A rocket. In 2015, it launched a satellite for the Canadian communications company Telstar. MHI also plans to launch a satellite for operator Inmarsat in 2020 on the H-2A vehicle. Ko said potential customers ask him a lot about the readiness of the H3 booster. “Of course we have underground negotiations with many satellite companies, but as of now we have nothing to release,” he said.

MHI’s efforts to attract more commercial business for its new rocket come at a challenging time. Orders for new communications satellites, especially those bound for geostationary orbit, have slumped. Although he acknowledges that the global satellite industry is having a difficult time right now, Ko believes that market will rebound. He also said the H3 rocket is positioned to grab a slice of the growing small satellite market, as MHI is working to develop a dispenser for multiple satellites during a single launch.

Unfortunately for Ko, as the big satellite market shrinks, the pool of launchers is expanding. When trying to sell the H3 to customers, Ko must compete not only with the Falcon 9, but Blue Origin’s New Glenn (first flight in 2021) and Europe’s Ariane 6 (first flight in 2020) in addition to Russian and Chinese vendors. When it comes to mission success, it is difficult for Japan to differentiate itself. The Falcon 9 has flown 35 successful missions in a row, and Europe also has a credible record of mission success.

National defense

Beyond business realities, there may be another reason why Japan wants to modernize its launcher fleet.

From the outset of its space activities more than half a century ago, in the wake of World War II, Japan decreed that it would conduct activities in space “for peaceful purposes only.” The country’s leadership maintained this view for decades, even as the United States, Russia, and China took steps toward the militarization of space.

Japan formally changed this stance a decade ago, however, when the country’s legislature enacted a Basic Space Law that stated the country should ensure the national security of Japan. In effect, this change made Japanese law consistent with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which allows countries to develop defensive capabilities in space.

Analysts say Japan made the change for several reasons, including North Korea’s emerging missile program and a recognition that, to be a major player in the 21st century, a country needed strategic assets in space.

"Autonomous access to space has been a consistent space policy goal for postwar Japan," said Saadia Pekkanen, an expert on Japanese space policy at the University of Washington. "This next rocket, or whatever comes along, is part of that story. And with the legal and policy changes in Japan after the 2008 Basic Space Law, Japan has moved steadily and ever more autonomously down the unmanned national security path. This will not change and is likely to be reinforced in the present Japanese uncertainties about the directions of the United States."

Since passage of its basic space law, Japan has proceeded to beef up its space-based capabilities. In 2010, the country launched the first of four Quasi-Zenith Satellite System spacecraft, which “augment” the US-operated Global Positioning System over Japan and its regional neighbors. The last of these four launched in October 2017, and the system is now operational. Although the funding has not yet been secured, Japan intends to launch three more of these satellites by 2023, which could give it operational independence from the GPS network if needed.

In 2017, Japan also launched its first X-band communications satellite, known as Kirameki-2. This satellite—as well as another launched in May of 2018 and a third one planned for 2020—will give the country’s defense forces enhanced communications abilities.

It is not clear what plans Japan has for future space-based assets with defense applications, but investing in a reliable, modern, low-cost rocket is one way to ensure the country can continue to get its satellites into orbit.

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During the brief meeting with MHI’s leader at his Tokyo headquarters, Shunichi Miyanaga mentioned a successor to the H3 rocket. This was an allusion to the country’s on- and off-again efforts to develop a reusable rocket.

In July, the Japanese national newspaper Asahi Shimbun interviewed Koichi Okita, who heads the research division at JAXA, about the space agency’s work on reusable launch vehicle technology. Asked about the need to catch up to some of its international rivals including SpaceX and Blue Origin, Okita said, “We feel a strong sense of crisis.”

This is a fairly provocative quote. For weeks, Ars attempted to reach Okita for an interview, but JAXA’s news division rebuffed our requests. Finally, we were invited to submit a few written questions, to which the office returned generic answers. For example, asked whether the lack of reusable technology in Japan truly did reflect a crisis, the proffered response was, “We are considering increasing the maturity of the basic technology of a single stage reuse rocket and expanding the range of choices in the future.”

In reality, Japan has experimented with reusable rockets since 1999, tinkering with the design and operation of systems for takeoff and landing, as well as safe, repeated flights. So Japan has actually been working on reusable technology since before SpaceX even existed. However, MHI and JAXA never received the resources needed to scale up from basic tests.

“Historically, we have a longer experience with this technology than SpaceX,” Ko said, when asked about reusable launchers. “But the big problem for us is budget.”

That appears to now be changing, at least a little. JAXA and MHI have developed a reusable liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen engine, and the organizations plan to test it in a 7-meter-tall rocket with a mass of 2 tons. They plan to conduct many tests, with a flight test up to 100 meters next year. The program’s goal is to understand the process and determine how best to lower operational costs from launch to launch. MHI and JAXA are also working with the French Space Agency on a reusable launch demonstrator called Callisto, which could make a test flight as early as 2021.

Ko said he believes reducing refurbishment costs is more important than demonstrating a reusable launch system. And this is not wrong. Most of the space shuttle components were reusable, but its refurbishment costs were so high that each flight of the vehicle still cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Ko asserted that SpaceX either has not mastered low-cost refurbishment or has decided not to pass those savings along to customers.

“Two years ago SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was asked at a meeting how the price would go with reusable vehicles,” Ko recalled. “She said 30 percent less. One year later, she says only 10 percent less.”

Even so, Ko recognizes that time is against him and Japan and that reusability represents the future of launch. From its tests over the next 12 to 18 months, JAXA hopes to better understand the problem of refurbishment costs and determine the best technology path to reach a fully reusable, vertically launched rocket. With this information, MHI and JAXA will make the case for government funding to actually develop such a rocket.

Optimistically, Ko said he believes MHI could deliver such a reusable rocket in 2025. But realistically, well, this probably won’t happen.

“This date would be very, very tough from the standpoint of budget restrictions,” he said. However, Japan must realize that if it wants a future in aerospace, it should probably invest in reusability sooner rather than later. “From the market point of view, I think 2030 would be too late, so I should push JAXA to do that program in a hurry.”

The patriarchy

That may be a problem. For all of its quiet competency, efficiency, and technical proficiency, one area in which the Japanese government, industry, and culture seems to be struggling is the capacity for rapid change.

The rigidity of Japanese society manifested itself several times during a visit to the country, perhaps most strikingly through the country’s persistent patriarchy.

Mitsubishi was founded in 1870 by a Japanese financier named Iwasaki Yatarō. It began as a ship-building business (which it continues today, through MHI) and expanded rapidly during the first half of the 20th century. It served as a major contractor during World War II, building the infamous Mitsubishi Zero, which was later used for kamikaze operations. The company was broken up after the war, but it began to coalesce again in the 1950s. Today, MHI is one of its four main units, and it retains significant works in Nagasaki where Mitsubishi was founded.

During a three-day tour of MHI facilities from Nagasaki to Tokyo, which included five formal presentations and six factory tours, a woman addressed our group just once. This came during a tour of a factory where the company is building a new regional jet to compete with the likes of Embraer.

Regional jets are the planes with one or two seats on either side of the aisle, typically used for routes such as Wichita to Denver. They’re the planes that, when you look at a seat map or out the airport window at your gate, you groan while contemplating narrow seats and checking your bag plane-side.

MHI, which has long provided components for large airplane manufacturers like Boeing, seeks to enter the civil aircraft market with the “MRJ,” its name for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet. It has developed a more roomy version of a regional jet. So as part of its factory tour in Nagoya, the company has young, attractive, smiling hostesses take visitors through a mock-up of the airplane and more. It was a “cute” experience, in an artificial Hello Kitty sort of way. All the same, this reinforced the fact that women appeared to play virtually no serious role in the leadership of Japan’s aerospace industry.

The Mitsubishi Regional Jet is an attractive airplane.
Enlarge / The Mitsubishi Regional Jet is an attractive airplane.

When it comes to reusable spaceflight, Western companies such as SpaceX have lapped the rest of the world. What also seems clear is that such companies also have a head start when it comes to tapping the potential of the entire workforce, starting with SpaceX's president, Gwynne Shotwell. Other major US aerospace companies are similarly led by women, including Lockheed Martin and rocket engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Throughout our entire time with MHI, the company did not hide the fact that the Japanese aerospace industry has ambitions of being a serious competitor with the likes of SpaceX and other private American space companies. But for rocket companies in the US, it clearly helps that women can build rockets, too.

(Editor's note: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries paid for the author of this story to travel to Japan and spend several days visiting company facilities there.)