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Editorial: Japan's space tech startups need a boost to follow in SpaceX's footsteps

U.S. aerospace firm SpaceX has just delivered Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and three other crew members to the International Space Station, a signature moment in the transition of space development and technology from the public to the private sector.

    SpaceX is a venture company founded in 2002. After decades of the world launching throw-away rockets, the firm developed the first-ever reusable rocket technology, drastically cutting launch costs.

    In April 2019, a developmental version of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule exploded during testing. Only a year later or so, the company pulled off its first manned Crew Dragon test trip to the space station. It is now also looking into a business to take tourists to the moon. Perhaps it takes a venture firm like SpaceX -- which pitches its ability to tackle the impossible-- to transform norm-shattering ideas into reality through the application of tremendous technological prowess plus vast sums in investment.

    In Japan, space technology development is primarily handled by large corporations like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., IHI Aerospace Co., and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. Some 90% of demand in the sector comes from the government, making Japan quite unusual compared to Europe and the United States, where private-sector demand makes up a significantly larger piece of the pie. With the lower output that comes with leaning on government orders, however, project costs can become a secondary issue. This in turn can hinder technological innovation, reducing the Japanese space industry's global competitiveness.

    Nevertheless, there are plenty of startups popping up across the country with their eyes on commercial opportunities in space. One operating under the slogan "Anyone can go to space" is planning a craft to take tourists 100 kilometers off the ground. Other firms are looking to develop technology to collect space debris, design rovers to crawl the moon, or use satellite data to prevent disasters or assist with agriculture and forestry. Truly, the variety of fields and businesses is staggering.

    In its Vision for the Space Industry 2030, the Japanese government states it is looking to double the current 1.2-trillion-yen (about $11.57 billion) value of the domestic sector by the 2030s. Under the space activities law implemented two years ago, Japan opened up satellite launches to private businesses, while also guaranteeing the government would cover part of the cost of any failures.

    Nevertheless, space technology startups continue to have a hard time in Japan. For one, skilled workers tend to drift toward the big corporations. It's hard to get investors on board without any concrete results to show them. Japan also lacks much of the infrastructure to build up space businesses, such as private launch facilities.

    Japan's space technology is right up there with that of the United States, Europe, Russia and China. Supporting venture firms on their way up can create healthy competition and a favorable cycle of new technology and ideas boosting demand. Efforts must be made to prevent Japan's accumulation of stand-out technology from going to waste.

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