Asian powerhouses take different tacks on space

Japan works with others while China goes it alone with conventional plans

October 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TOKYO - The space programs of Asia's two most powerful nations have roughly similar annual budgets: $1.7 billion for Japan and about $2.2 billion for China. But the programs speak volumes about their two worldviews.

China's well-publicized launching duplicates the U.S. and Soviet feats of four decades ago. This muscular, go-it-alone bid announces China's superpower ambitions to the world.

"It is quite an achievement," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan said on last night. "It proved the high level of space technology and science" in China.

"I am hoping for a safe return journey," he added.

Japan's program is low-key but involves high science. By joining the U.S.-led Space Center consortium, Japan once again finds comfort in a group, walking half a step behind Uncle Sam.

"Japan wants to leapfrog into orbital space plane capabilities, rather than reinventing what is fairly dated technology," Lance Gatling, an American aerospace consultant, said here, emphasizing that Japan wanted to skip over the man in space phase of 40 years ago.

But the China manned space flight left many here meditating on the reality of being No. 2.

"Japan Shocked at Being Placed Way Behind" was the headline in the daily Tokyo Shimbun on yesterday afternoon next to a front-page photo of the Chinese launching. Others meditated on the incongruity of Japan's giving $1.2 billion a year in developmental aid to China.

Regarding space, Japan has chosen practicality over prestige.

Instead of orbiting a manned rocket around the earth, Japan is working on developing cheaper, more reliable rockets and building a $4.6 billion module for the International Space Station, a 15-nation venture led by the United States.

Japanese space officials emphasized to the public that they could have done what China had, if they had wanted to.

But the fact is that Japan's own on-again, off-again rocket launching program has, for now, been suspended because of fish.

After mechanical trouble delayed a rocket launching three times in September, Japan's rocket engineers ran into an annual October-to-December ban on launchings from Tanegashima Island, home to Japan's $1 billion Space Center. Faced with militant fishermen, the space agency long ago agreed to limit launchings to a calendar when fish would not be bothered, about 190 days of the year.

In India, whose strategic rivalry with China is strong, there was no official reaction yesterday to the Chinese space flight. India was focused instead on its neighbor to the west, Pakistan, which announced Tuesday that it had completed three tests of a medium-range missile able to carry a nuclear warhead.

But the Chinese launching seems likely to concentrate Indian minds even more on their own space agenda: sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon by 2008.

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