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Designer of utility pole-sized, satellite-carrying rocket tastes success after failure

Hiroto Habu (Mainichi Shimbun)

"I don't want it to end like this," 48-year-old rocket designer Hiroto Habu remembers thinking.

Habu, an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), spent two years from 2015 developing the No. 4 vehicle of Japan's SS-520 series utility pole-sized rocket, which can carry microsatellites into space. But in January 2017, the vehicle failed after just 20 seconds in flight.

The flight control room froze. Only the ticking of the clock on the wall could be heard. Habu later appeared in a news conference without knowing the cause of the failure. He had only three lines in front of him stating that the rocket had failed, and he was unable to answer any questions.

The SS-520 had been used for scientific observations, but it was improved to carry satellites into space. Carrying a satellite into space aboard a small rocket like this was a mission which researchers had talked about, but which no one had attempted before.

It so happened that demand for launches of microsatellites had been increasing among the world's developing countries. "Let's build a low-cost rocket making use of Japan's technology," Habu suggested.

The No. 4 vehicle of the rocket modified an existing small rocket, using mass-produced, Japan-made parts utilized in household appliances.

The rocket, however, failed in seconds, dealing a heavy blow to Habu. "I can no longer live as a researcher," he thought at the time.

But all hope was not lost, as a relaunch was soon scheduled. Habu feared another failure, but in February this year, the improved No. 5 vehicle successfully lifted off. He remembers a feeling of happiness welling up when his 3-year-old son exclaimed, "That's so amazing!"

In the future, Habu, a specialist in rocket fuel, will work on developing a low-cost rocket using robot technology.

"All the research in Japan is outstanding. I want to overcome the barriers in the field and quickly add new technology to rocket development," Habu says.

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