Japan budget cuts ground once-proud space program

Japan is proud to be one of the most advanced spacefaring nations, with a more than 50-year record of space launches. The H-2A and H2-B rockets have been particularly successful vehicles, boasting a success rate of over 95%.

Based on these achievements, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) initiated the H3 launch vehicle program in 2013 to replace the H-2A.

JAXA aimed to design a launch vehicle with a globally competitive cost structure and flexible configurations to accommodate user needs while preserving reliability. “Make it cheaper” became the watchword. To achieve this, the H3 adopts as many commercially available off-the-shelf items as practical, reducing the launch cost to half of the H-2A.

The agency also redesigned its production methods to incorporate the production-line concept and reduce overall production costs.

Japan has made global competitiveness a policy objective because the H3 needs to secure sufficient launch demand and further reduce costs. These cost efforts are important for Japan to continue operating space programs — particularly for national security and scientific missions — under a limited budget. 

But the failure of the H3’s inaugural flight in March 2023 revealed technological concerns and raised policy questions about the benefit of cost reduction when it jeopardizes national security.

The H3 will be the sole national launch vehicle that reaches geostationary orbit after the government terminates the H-2A. There are currently no commercially available alternatives in Japan.

Given the importance of the H3 for Japan’s access to space, cost competitiveness should not be the top consideration in its development. The delay in H3 development hinders Japan’s access to space capability, especially national security missions.

Competitiveness also goes beyond cost, as it entails an efficient supply chain — ground, air and sea transportation networks — and streamlined regulations.

Japan’s national space policy leaders are not fully addressing these policy questions. On April 17, the Committee on National Space Policy and its secretariat released a draft version of its newest comprehensive national space policy.

This draft mentions the failures of Japan’s two national flagship launch vehicles, Epsilon in October 2022 and H3 in March 2023, suggesting that Japan should leverage recent losses to advance its space transportation systems.

These lessons will be incorporated into the development of the post-H3 rocket, which is expected to launch in the 2030s. The post-H3 will enhance launch capacity, increase launch frequency and further cut costs through partial reusability. In the long term, the committee envisions acquiring a fully reusable launch vehicle and a human spaceflight system. 

Leaders also deem the development of launch sites that assure frequent and varied launches as indispensable. Many of these objectives can be accomplished with support from the commercial sector.

From a public policy perspective, the H3’s failure could be deemed a case where political attention surges and the impetus to change becomes strong. Leaders could leverage the H3 mishap to reform the existing policy.

One focal discussion point in reforming space policy is re-examining the policy objectives of the H3. Securing continual access to space capability should be the program’s top priority.

Before talking about H3 objectives, Japanese leaders may need to reconsider what assured access to space means to Japan. Having a space transportation system with the H3 plus an additional new launcher would be redundant from a policy perspective. But if it is perceived to be vital, then policy depending on the H3 alone must be altered.

The US government’s decision to rely on a single human spaceflight vehicle, the Space Shuttle, caused a gap in human spaceflight capability when the ship broke apart and its crewmembers died in 1986 and 2003. 

As a response, the United States developed two human spaceflight systems for the post-shuttle era. One was developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Boeing and the other was developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX was successful not only because of abundant resources but also because NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Crew Resupply Services programs (CRS) provided funding and improved the predictability of future demand. Japan should re-examine whether having two national space transportation systems may be necessary for national security

If so, programs like COTS and CRS should be adopted to stimulate domestic commercial players and develop alternative launch options. Japan could develop an alternative launch option to the H3 by incentivizing the private sector.

Now is a good time for Japan to reform its national space transportation system policy, specifically the 2014 Long-term Vision for a Space Transportation System policy, along with the new comprehensive national space policy.

The reform should streamline the national goals of space transportation systems. It should update not only rocket objectives but also launch sites, supply chains and regulations associated with specific programs. 

In doing so, Japan can achieve a multispectral national space transportation system policy that truly assures sustainable access to space.

Takuya Wakimoto is Space Practice Co-lead at Deloitte Tohmatsu Space and Security.

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.