H-3 failure holds back Japanese space tourism

While a startup is promising trips in its space balloon by the end of this year, the failed launch of the H-3 rocket cause doubts.
16 March 2023
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A startup in Sapporo, Japan, is planning to launch space balloon rides that will float 25km into the stratosphere, where tourists will be able to take in views of the Earth’s curvature.

Space tourism has been an emblem of a futuristic lifestyle since the 1960s saw the first humans in space. Once proven possible, it seemed logical that in decades we would be taking interplanetary weekend jaunts.

Iwaya Giken has said that its customers will be able to take a trip into space by the end of this year. The experience will involve a two-hour ascent, allowing occupants of the space balloon to enjoy the view for an hour before returning to land in the ocean.

The company says passengers won’t need special training to make the trip, as at the altitude the balloon reaches there is still gravity. Per ride, costs will be about 24 million yen ($178,100) per person, although this is expected to drop.

“In the future, we will be able to reduce the price to the range between 1 million yen and 2 million yen,” said company President Keisuke Iwaya, 36. The balloon, whose prototype was showcased at an event February 21, measures 41 meters high and has a spherical two-seater cabin, 1.5 meters in diameter.

The cabin is designed to be unaffected by changes in temperature and air pressure, and comes equipped with life-support equipment, supported by parachutes in case of emergency. The company has already conducted more than 300 flight tests — the balloon has reached 40km into the sky so far.

Space balloon seems safer than a rocketship

Aiming to further cement Japan’s footing in space exploration was the H-3 rocket launch on February 17. However, the ship didn’t make it far: an abnormality in the main engine meant hopes were dashed before take off.

A second attempt March 7 failed more spectacularly: after 13 minutes and 55 seconds in the air, the rocket had to be forced to self-destruct by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

JAXA president, Hiroshi Yamakawa, said, “We would like to take measures leading up to a second H-3 launch and beyond after analyzing what happened from a technical point of view.” Apparently, the launch on March 7 at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture went as planned for the first five minutes: the rocket’s first-stage main engine stopped firing and its second stage successfully separated — but failed to ignite.

JAXA assessed that the H-3 would be unable to put the Earth-observation satellite Daichi-3 into its scheduled orbit. The satellite was lost in the failure.

Supposedly, the H-3’s second-stage engine was an improvement on the engine of what’s currently Japan’s flagship rocket, the H-2A. The H-3’s control equipment should have sent an ignition signal to the second-stage engine; JAXA are investigating where the signal failed to reach the engine, or if it was sent at all.

Shinya Matsuura, a science and technology journalist, said, “failure of the second-stage engine is rare. The problem could be the ignition mechanism, control system or electrical system rather than the second-stage engine itself.”

The Japanese government was shocked by the failure, having insisted that the first launch on February 17 was “aborted” and not “failed.” The H-3 rocket is necessary not only to Japan’s expansion of space business, but its entire space policy.

As Iwaya Giken plans to recruit five passengers and a pilot for the first round of space balloon flights by the end of this year, the failure of the H-3’s launch took place two years behind schedule. Because the rocket self-destructed, the cause of the issue will be difficult to identify, and there are no plans to retrieve its parts from the seabed.

“If [the failure] is attributed to complicated technical problems, it could take years before the next launch,” Yasunori Matogawa, emeritus professor at JAXA, said. “That would affect the future of MMX and delay [H-3’s] entry into the Artemis program.”

Does the outcome of the H-3 launch make the realization of space tourism feel further away? We think that at the least, the Sapporo startup will struggle to find test-drive volunteers.