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Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

BUSINESS GOING BEGGING

It's high time for Japan to ride the space-tourism wave


Staff writer

The United States and Europe are finally, albeit slowly, paving the way for space tourism to become a revolutionary source of new business -- some economists even believe it could save the stagnating world economy.


News photo Until now space development has largely been driven by the reality and the aftermath of Cold War competition between the U.S. and the former USSR. Collins believes that in that context, there was no incentive for engineers to create spacecrafts that were economical, reusable or able to carry paying passengers
Azabu University professor Patrick Collins PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK COLLINS

But many experts are very critical of governments' "monopoly of space" to date, saying that their overarching dominance has harmfully delayed it. Japan, in particular, is often singled out for having top-notch technological credentials . . . but no plans to invest in this new business with astronomical potential.

"Space travel services for the general public have been widely recognized as the major space business of the future. They could grow to more than $100 billion a year and employ millions of people," said Patrick Collins, professor of environmental policy at Azabu University in Kanagawa Prefecture.

But sadly, most government space agencies in Japan and elsewhere have long kept space development to themselves and used it as a tool to compete with other nations, he said. In Japan, however, he pointed to conservatism and a fear of taking responsibility for failures as key reasons why the industry remains closed.

Collins, an expert on the economics of space tourism, who has done research at London University, the University of Tokyo, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and the National Space Development Agency of Japan, said that while major economies spend more than $23 billion annually on civilian space activities -- $16 billion by the U.S., $5 billion by Europe and $2 billion by Japan -- only about 20 percent of those expenditures are spent on forms of space science that are of benefit to the general public, such as astronomy, or conducting experiments that are impossible except in zero-gravity conditions.

The rest -- approximately $18 billion -- is used for applications that Collins believes neither yield profit nor lead to space-related business, such as developing extremely expensive expendable vehicles or spending on the International Space Station (ISS). ISS was scheduled to be completed in 1992 at a cost of $8 billion -- but is still under construction despite having already cost $100 billion.

"One purpose of the ISS was for it to be used by fee-paying companies, for instance as a zero-gravity research laboratory. Now, though, it's too expensive for anyone to use, so it won't pay as a business," Collins said.

As a consequence of this, space travel has effectively become a monopoly for a small group of very special people called astronauts -- who ordinary people are supposed to admire after paying out squillions in taxes to equip them for their jobs.

And although OECD government space agencies are legally required to encourage the development of commercial space industries, Collins said that commercial interest in services like remote-sensing satellite systems and telecommunications have been far too small to justify their huge investment.

"This situation of not pursuing space travel is because of a 'culture of monopoly' by government space agencies and their reluctance to take risks. But it has wasted way too much money," Collins said.

In fact, until now space development has largely been driven by the reality and the aftermath of Cold War competition between the U.S. and the former USSR. Collins believes that in that context, there was no incentive for engineers to create spacecrafts that were economical, reusable or able to carry paying passengers.

"As a result, a huge amount of tax money was used to develop rockets that cost 10 billion yen, and are disposed of after a single use -- which not only wastes money, but also prevents the creation of reusable vehicles -- a key element in realizing passenger travel."

Collins said that at a time when the world's economy is in a precarious condition, with so much joblessness and a lack of new industries, this put an extremely heavy burden on taxpayers.

"I call this an anti-space tourism policy," he said.

The technology to build suborbital passenger spacecraft existed in the 1960s, space hotels could have been possible in the '70s, and orbital passenger spacecraft in the '80s, he said.

"If they had started at these times, they would have created several million permanent jobs and the world would be a much better place today."

However, the U.S. and European governments are now on a better track, he said, with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently encouraging venture companies to develop spacecraft for tourism, and the European Space Agency encouraging private companies to submit space-tourism plans through which they can win 150,000 euro (approximately $194,000) -- which Collins called "absolutely fantastic -- provided they continue."

Collins said that the success of U.S.-based Scaled Composites LLC's SpaceShipOne in the Ansari X Prize was extremely significant, as that project was realized for a mere $20 million.

"NASA spends $42 million a day -- so SpaceShipOne can be made in half a day. Then Japan's annual budget for space is $2 billion -- so SpaceShipOne could be made in four days," he said.

Counter to this criticism of national cabals restricting or preventing ordinary people's space-travel prospects, it is a little-known fact that groups of Japanese experts have, since the early 1990s, been preparing detailed cost simulations of space tourism using reusable spacecraft.

The Japanese Rocket Society, an academic group comprised of professors and experts in such fields as space engineering and aviation, began studies in 1993 on the profitability of developing the Kankoumaru reusable orbital spacecraft. The 22-meter-high, cone-shaped vehicle with a diameter of 18 meters, is designed to fly to an altitude of 200 km and orbit the Earth twice in three hours before returning to land.

After carrying out a survey of 3,000 people, the group concluded that the Kankoumaru, which it is estimated would take 10 years and 1.4 trillion yen to develop, would be a paying proposition if 52 of the vehicles were launched 300 times a year with a load of 45 passengers per flight -- and with each passenger paying just 2.95 million yen.

A subgroup then came up with an even lower-cost and technically easier plan, based on a suborbital spacecraft called Uchumaru, that would take three years and 30 billion yen to develop.

Yoshifumi Inatani, a professor at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, is a central member of the Japanese Rocket Society. In his view, "It was the first research of this kind with such a detailed business model. Although a lot of technological refinement is necessary, building Kankoumaru must be possible."

Inatani's work at JAXA takes in the Reusable Rocket Vehicle Test (RVT), whose technology can be applied both to the Kankoumaru and Uchumaru.

His laboratory is the only one in Japan that conducts reusable rocket experiments. So far, he has successfully test-flown the RVT eight times between 1999 and 2003, taking it up to 42 meters in altitude at the Noshiro test facility in Akita Prefecture.

Although Inatani believes that Japanese investors tend to think in a much shorter time frame than those abroad, he says that luring investment for the project may be possible if enough public interest could be aroused. But Japan's main bottleneck lies in the extremely conservative culture of the government's space-policy makers and the public sector, who are both overly cautious and try to avoid sticking their necks out at all costs, he said.

"There is a big difference in mentality between countries like the U.S., which lightheartedly accepts such new projects, with the FAA giving licenses to vehicles developed by venture companies," Inatani pointed out ruefully. "That would be very difficult in Japan."

Also, he bemoaned the fact that although there are many people in Japan who are keen to foster space tourism, once someone actually starts it, there will be others -- including the media -- who will hysterically condemn their efforts in case of an accident.

"This kind of mentality can only be changed if the government gives the first push -- by initiating the first project, or making the first technological investment. It also depends on people like us continuing to trumpet the success of our experiments."

Collins said that Japan should keep making efforts to participate in space tourism, "because it's where Japan's strength can be used."

"Japanese companies' major strength is in engineering and reliability, which are both vital when developing reusable vehicles that constantly need to withstand the forces of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. People will want to ride on a 'Made in Japan' spacecraft," he said.

"Once we start living in space, it will lead to a 'world renaissance,' Collins proclaimed. "Then, we can sit on the ceiling, our clothes and hairstyles change and flying will be a part of our culture. Just the vision that there is such a new world is extraordinary . . . its educational benefit for children alone will be worth more than the cost of developing space-tourism vehicles."


See related links:
Get out of this world
Japan's pioneers of new space age



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