Japan’s troubled space agency

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Link here. The article describes how JAXA has pulled some remarkable successes out of the jaws of failure, but in describing these stories it made me realize how many of these failures have occurred, far more than one should expect. Just consider:

  • Nozomi failed to enter Mars orbit when its main engine did not fire as planned. The mission was a total loss.
  • Akatsuki failed to enter Venus orbit when its main engine did not fire as planned. The mission has been partly saved by the use of the spacecraft’s attitude thrusters to put it into Venus orbit five years late.
  • Hayabusa-1 had enormous problems, and was barely able to return to Earth with barely any asteroid samples, as had been the plan.

This list is essentially Japan’s entire interplanetary program since 2000, all of which failed in some significant way. The recovery of Akatsuki and Hayabusa-1 were hailed as great achievements, but in retrospect they both indicated a serious quality control problem in Japan’s space program. The loss of their most recent science X-ray telescope, Hitomi, when a software error caused the spacecraft to breakup in orbit only one month after launch, illustrated this again.


  • Garry

    Shocking, given how obsessed the Japanese are with quality.

  • Tom Billings

    “Shocking, given how obsessed the Japanese are with quality.”

    The Japanese are obsessed with quality of *exports*.

    Their government space program is viewed mostly as a matter of internal consumption, where political results are primary. There, things are strongly affected by agency costs. Look at their bureaucrats’ reaction to a single nuclear plant being swamped by an earthquake-caused Tsunami. By the end of 2017 it will have taken over 6 years to get all the plants that were never even harmed by the tsunami back online, because no bureaucrats were willing to stand up to the anti-nuke hysteria cultured by academia over the decades.

    The bureaucracy in Japan extends back into the Tokugawa era, as well as its connections to business. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, when taxes were paid in rice, the businessmen who gathered and transported the rice were, of necessity, good friends with the bureaucrats, and both found many ways to make results move resources towards themselves. The results contributed to the fall of the Tokugawa.

    Agency cost exponentiates as one travels up the levels of a hierarchy. Engineers at the bottom are enthusiastic enough about spaceflight that planning for space settlements, as a project, is used to attract and sift young engineers for major construction companies in Japan. The government hierarchs have unaccountable power, and refuse funding for anything approaching execution of such projects, much like Senator Shelby here in the US.

  • mpthompson

    First, I would like to congratulate Japan for even having an interplanetary program. It’s to be admired they are even trying. However, with that said, with such a low launch rate the pressures upon the engineers to get things right must be enormous. Such pressures in the end can be self-defeating.

    Also, I wonder how Japan’s more rigid social and professional structure may contribute the problems. Perhaps the engineers with the best ideas and know-how have difficulty being influential in a very conservative management structure which values seniority over other factors that would more strongly correlate to mission success.

    I’ve seen PBS documentaries on the innovations that made JPL’s success with the various Mars missions possible. Young engineers were given a lot of leeway to come up with very innovative solutions to very challenging problems that from the outside appeared to be incredibly risky, but in the end worked brilliantly. Would JAXA benefit from following similar approaches in how they manage the development of their interplanetary probes? I have a suspect they only get daring when no other options exist.

  • Garry

    Yes, politics drives a lot in Japan, but the Japanese are obsessed with quality for both exports and domestics. By this I mean the people who get the work done, not the bureaucrats.

    In my 4 years living in Tokyo, one of the most impressive aspects was the constant striving to do things right, from the morning exercises/slogans, to the fast food receptionist taking your order, to any employee in any store greeting enthusiastically and giving great service, to workers in companies working hard. Yes, there are some slackers (mostly older employees), but on the whole everyone maintains a cheerful, productive exterior, which tends to seep into their internal attitudes.

    The downside is that they tend to be robotic and sometimes they hide problems (avoiding anything that can be interpreted as calling someone out), but the pride in work is undeniable. When there are problems, they generally come from mismanagement, not low level workers.

  • Localfluff

    One has to consider that JAXA hasn’t made very many space missions at all. And they try to do most of it themselves, if it is for national prestige or pork money, I don’t know. They are kind of still in the space race, learning. And they save their failures, as you say. I think that even Hitomi captured some x-ray image of the sky, of great science value since it was the first of its kind, before it spun itself to obliteration. Hayabusa 2 is a very ambitions space missions. They keep the standard of achievement high. I like that even if only half succeeds half way.

  • wayne

    –Extremely interesting stuff on the Japanese. I’m incredibly fuzzy on anything pre-1900 with Japan, and woefully ignorant of the actual Culture. (I learn a lot from you guys!)

    I would have thought they would be really good with “space.”

    Do they really do the group-exercise thing? How pervasive is that?
    That strikes me as sorta “totalitarian & conformist,” although I fully realize it does work to build cohesion & a sense of shared-purpose. (Something we could do a better job with in our own Country.)
    -I just discovered, our “PTA” is very popular in Japan. (Is it?) (It was apparently introduced after the War, to help foster “democratic participation,” but as more of the woman moved into the workforce over the years, it’s become a strain on them, as to active-participation.)
    Some of the larger corporations have recently lightened up on “flex-time” to make it easier on them & they are trying to entice more men to participate, but it’s apparently looked upon as the woman’s responsible.

  • Steve Earle

    Japan seems to be a study in contrasts. When the Fukishima Incident occurred, I assumed the Japanese would learn from their very basic mistake and put extra back-up generators higher up and out of waters reach at all of their Nuclear Plants. (instead of the basement which flooded immediately…) Problem solved, right?

    Instead of that, and instead of praising the plant designers and builders (Even though it was an older design the plant itself withstood both an earthquake AND a tsunami that were far in excess of anything they thought it might face!) they reacted as though there was some inherent flaw in all of their plants. Political thinking and cowardice at it’s worst.

    Reminds me somewhat of the Challenger explosion. It became apparent fairly quickly that the O-rings were at fault, and that they were only at fault because the launch happened in cold weather they were not designed for.

    So don’t launch when the O-rings are too cold! Problem solved, right? No. We shutdown the entire program for months and spent a lot of money re-designing the damn rings, (and appoint a money is no object, navel-gazing commission) and then after all that, we still didn’t ever launch again when it was cold…..

    Just as when all is said and done in Japan, they will have gone through a huge and expensive shutdown when all they had to do was buy more gennies and position them correctly this time.

  • Dick Eagleson

    About the Japanese I am reminded of something I read 30-odd years ago. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “When we Americans see the Japanese wearing their company uniforms, doing their synchronized morning exercises and singing their company songs we smile a bit indulgently and maybe even laugh a little. When the U.S. Marines line up in neat ranks in their “company uniforms” and sing their “company song,” nobody laughs.”

  • wayne

    -Recently watched some Japanese documentaries on Fukishima, I was very impressed with the folks-on-the-ground. The politicians however– exactly as you noted. They must take lessons from our “leaders.”
    -Can’t speak to the NASA thing in depth. I was under the impression the management-culture, at the time, was fond of making contractor’s prove-negatives.

    Love that paraphrase. Not sure exactly how you meant it, but it is great nonetheless!
    (the whole synchronized exercise thing– it’s “creepy.”

    Garry– I was looking at a web page with “100 greatest Japanese Saying’s.”
    Some really good stuff! They had the actual Japanese text-symbols, literal English translation, and the “Americanized” English sentence.

    Just as an amateur civilian, I’m sorta astonished the Japanese aren’t “very-good” with Space.

  • Steve Earle

    Wayne, you’re right, the workers bees at Fukishima even tried (and to a small extent, succeeded) in wiring their car batteries together to power the plant controls. IFIRC they were able to power up the control room panels enough to see just how screwed they were…. LOL

    The sources I have read all say the same. The building and the Nuclear plant and controls all did what they were designed to do under circumstances far beyond what they were designed for.

    The workers all performed heroically.

    If the backup generators had been on the roof instead of in the basement, none of us would even be aware of the word ‘Fukishima”

    It is another example of the Left being able to set the agenda because the Right has lost it’s nerve…..

  • wayne

    You might be interested in the British “Windscale” Reactor fire, in 1957.
    (It was basically a copy of our “B” Reactor at Hanford, but it was air-cooled. A tragic-comedy of errors led to 8 tons of uranium burning up.)

    “Our Reactor is on Fire”

  • Nick P

    Something I find amusing and frustrating at the same time about Fukushima is that the evacuated “no mans land” around the plant deemed too dangerous for human habitation is actually considerably less hazardous than Denver which has a high radiation level due to both it’s elevation and natural radiation from granite. Has any environmentalist demanded the evacuation of Denver?

  • wayne

    Nick P:
    excellent point about Denver!

  • Steve Earle

    Thanks for the link Wayne, I will check it out.

    And Nick, good point about Denver, and don’t forget that right in Japan are two even more extreme examples:

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Last I checked they were both still crowded and thriving cities…..

    PBS had a show a few months ago about Radiation. In this documentary they visited both Fukishima and Chernobyl. They also interviewed a British scientist who was described in the show as an expert on radiation exposure.

    She stated that most of Pripiyat (spelling?) and the area around Chernobyl is habitable and has been for some time now.
    She compared radiation exposure to suntans VS sunburns and declared that just like the suns rays, radiation exposure is not a problem in small doses, it is only in very large doses that it becomes a problem….

  • Nick P


    I have no expertise in this area and don’t claim any but I read an excellent description of the method used to judge the danger of various exposure levels. Using water as an example, we know that 212 deg F water will result in 100% 3rd deg burns. 120 deg water will result in less burns but there will still be some. Therefore by extrapolation, it is assumed that 90 deg water will also result in a measurable number of 3rd deg burns as well.

  • wayne

    You bring up an excellent point.

    There is a huge difference between “prompt” doses & cumulative doses. (If I recall correctly, 400-600 rads of prompt-radiation, and you are essentially a dead-man walking. That same amount over 20 years— not so much.)

    I forget what the technical-term is, but the anti-nuke people believe in the “zero-tolerance” school of thinking, where any amount of radiation is considered bad, “no matter what.”
    (That same thinking is also applied, by the EPA, to any chemical-exposure.)

  • Nick P


    “the anti-nuke people believe in the “zero-tolerance” school of thinking, where any amount of radiation is considered bad, “no matter what.”

    It depends on the source. Apparently any source of radiation that isn’t from a nuclear power plant is ok. An example is pointed out by the below paper. Though dated, it makes the point that by relying on coal as an alternative to nuclear power generation, we’ve released an enormous amount of radiation into the atmosphere in the form of radioactive uranium and thorium. But that was apparently deemed ok because the alternative, nuclear power, was much too dangerous a risk. So to avoid the risk of operating nuclear power plants, we’ve dumped 10,000s of tones of radioactive uranium and thorium into the atmosphere. But we can feel good about ourselves because we tried. The projections through 2040 are probably inaccurate now but it still amounts to 100,000s of tones.


  • wayne

    Nick P–

    Another most excellent point! ( & one had I totally forgotten about.)

    You just jogged my memory again– recall how “they” hated mercury, and then forced us all to buy the compact fluorescent bulbs, which each have something like 3 grams of mercury, each.

    If you break a regular incandescent, it’s just a hassle.
    If you break the CF bulbs, your house practically turns into Superfund site.

  • Edward

    wayne wrote: “-Can’t speak to the NASA thing in depth. I was under the impression the management-culture, at the time, was fond of making contractor’s prove-negatives.”

    The main problem was that the same engineer who was trying to stop the Challenger launch had, only ten months before, reassured NASA that those conditions were OK for launch. NASA was confused, and rightly so, and asked which was it, can they launch or not. Thiokol gave the wrong answer.

    You may want to read the book “The Challenger Launch Decision” by Diane Vaughan. She is a sociologist and looked at it from the point of view of how engineers think. She starts by reminding us what the news reports said, then tells us what really happened.

    Steve Earle,
    I once worked with a scientist who would often note that a small amount of the potassium in a banana is radioactive. He would use the comparison of “banana equivalent dose” when talking about radiation exposure, including the banana equivalent dose of sleeping next to your spouse. Also, I have long called sunburns “radiation poisoning.” Often, I have to explain myself.

    Nick P,
    Not only is it tons of released radiation, but it is airborne and can be breathed in, but the radioactive material in nuclear plants is contained and extremely well tracked. So much for consistency in Chicken-Littleism.

    Back to the Japanese space agency:
    Part of the difficulty of spaceflight is that we are still learning the traps and how to avoid them. One could say that the US had several early failures, so it should be expected that the Japanese would, too. But this ignores the opportunities for the Japanese to learn from the mistakes of other space agencies.

    Rocket engines, space navigation, and guidance and control software are no longer new technology. They are fairly well understood, so the high rate of failure should not be expected. India’s space agency is even newer (started in 1980 rather than 1970 for Japan), and they are now experiencing many successes.

  • Edward

    By the way, the biggest difficulty of spaceflight is the enormous amount of energy needed to get anywhere. Especially to get off the Earth.

    You may think that half a tank of gasoline to drive a couple hundred miles is a lot of energy, but just getting you into a 250-mile low Earth orbit (like the ISS) takes somewhere around 20 times your weight in propellant (fuel and oxidizer).

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