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Japan hoping to regain ground in the Asian space race

After 15 months on the ground, Japan is hoping to get back into an increasingly competitive space race in Asia with a launch Saturday of its domestically designed H-2A rocket. But with China now in the spotlight and memories still fresh of how Japan’s last mission ended in a fireball, officials admit it won’t be easy. “This launch is crucial to us,” said Mamoru Endo, a senior official with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. “But a single launch success is not enough to revive the reliability and reputation of the H-2A. I think maybe three or four successes will be necessary.”

Long Asia’s leading spacefaring nation, Japan is struggling to get out from under the shadow of China, which put its first astronaut into orbit aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in October 2003. One month later, a Japanese H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites malfunctioned after liftoff, forcing controllers to detonate it. Japan’s space program has been on hold since. China, meanwhile, has continued to race ahead. Beijing last month announced it will send two astronauts in orbit for up to five days in September or October. China, which is believed to have earmarked $20 billion US for its manned program, hopes to put an unmanned vehicle on the moon by 2010.

A government panel recommended last year that Japan, which has focused on unmanned, scientific probes, consider a manned space program over the next decade. Although the space agency’s budget has been generally declining for years, there is growing political support for giving it a boost in the near future. China’s lofty ambitions have caught the attention of Washington as well.

In addition to China, other Asian players are also becoming more active in the space game:

-India, with an annual space budget of $300 million, has developed rockets able to fire satellites into orbit, and short-and medium-range missiles. India plans to launch 40 satellites capable of collecting images of the Earth from space by 2008 and send a manned mission to the moon before 2015.

-On a smaller scale, Pakistan, which like India has developed advanced missile capabilities in tandem with its nuclear weapons program, is bolstering its space ambitions and has been working on its own satellites and remote sensing capabilities.

-Iran said last January it will launch a satellite with its own rocket within 18 months, which would make it the first Islamic country with the technology to do so.

-North Korea claimed to have launched its first satellite in 1998 and said it was successfully broadcasting praises of leader Kim Jong Il from orbit

Either way, the threat from North Korea is transforming Japan’s space program, which has a budget of the equivalent of about $2.5 billion US for the current fiscal year. Japan launched its first spy satellites – part of a long-term, $2 billion program aimed primarily at keeping watch on North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities – aboard an H-2A in March 2003. Two more are awaiting launch to replace those lost that November. The program, championed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, was strongly criticized as a departure from Japan’s policy of the non-militarization of space. But JAXA officials say the satellites are not a threat to North Korea or any other nation.