Using Our Rocket to Open Up the Future

Q. What is the real pleasure of developing a new launch vehicle?

Final launch of the M-V launch vehicle on September 23, 2006
Final launch of the M-V launch vehicle on September 23, 2006

To me, it’s that we have an opportunity to open up the future. If the Epsilon rocket enables much simpler and easier launches, the technology will surely be applied to the H-IIA launch vehicle, and will also be a good model for other international rockets. Our mission is to bring about an incredible new world of rockets equipped with artificial intelligence, and I am very proud of my work. It’s a great opportunity to create something completely new, and to establish world-class technology.
In 2006, further development of the M-V rocket was called off, and I kind of "graduated" from solid-fuel rockets. At that time some people said, "Whatever can be done with solid-fuel rockets is done, so further development is no longer necessary." But that’s when the Epsilon project kind of picked up. When I thought about the significance of solid rockets, I realized that there was still so much potential. So I began to persuade people around me to get the project launched.
In a sense this is a fresh beginning, having returned to the original starting point. My feeling about the Epsilon launch vehicle is not just that we are picking up the torch from our predecessors, but that we are also, in another sense, building the next stage on our own, from scratch. This gives us a strong sense that it is our rocket. There is nothing more fortunate than being able to build our own rocket making full use of all the efforts made by our predecessors.

Q. You were also the project manager of the M-V rocket. What got you involved in the development of solid-fuel rockets? And were you always interested in space or rockets as a child?

M-3SII rocket
M-3SII rocket

I was more attracted to the world-class Japanese rockets than to solid-fuel rockets. I found a position in rocket development because I had admired the forerunner of the M-V rocket, the M-3SII. That rocket carried Japan’s first interplanetary spacecraft, the Halley's comet mission Sakigake and Suisei, in 1985, and I watched it when I was a graduate student. It was the first time ever for a solid-fuel rocket, which was known for its difficult orbit control, to launch an interplanetary spacecraft, and I developed a strong interest in this world-class technology.
When I was a child, it was the heyday of science fiction, and I used to love watching TV shows with robots that had artificial intelligence, such as Astro Boy, and rockets, like in Thunderbird, which took off simply at the press of a button. It seems to me that rockets that can be ready for launch in a week and have artificial intelligence applications are very natural and normal things. It is perhaps the influence of the sci-fi shows I watched as a child. Rockets that are easy to launch were nothing special in the world of science fiction, so what I saw back then may be the prototype of the Epsilon launch vehicle.

Desire to Start a Revolution In the World of Rockets

Q. What do you think is ahead for the Epsilon launch vehicle?

Epsilon launch vehicle in flight (artist’s rendition)
Epsilon launch vehicle in flight (artist’s rendition)

In the first stage of development, a desktop computer will replace the enormous launch-control room. This is the first step in our efforts to simplify the rocket-launch system. In the second stage, around 2017, we hope to have the launch vehicle monitor and judge its own flight safety autonomously, so that we can remove the radar and antenna used to track and send commands to the rocket. The role of the tracking radar and antenna on the ground are to track the rocket's orbit, and in case of an abnormality, send a destruct signal in order to prevent harm to people on the ground. A tracking antenna for this purpose is up to 10 meters in diameter. It works well, but it is also very expensive to build and maintain.
Therefore, we plan to further improve the artificial intelligence of the rocket so it can take care of its own fight safety - it will autonomously determine its orbit and condition, and self-destruct when it recognizes something unusual. If we can achieve this, there will be no need to use expensive tracking radar, and we’ll be able to further simplify ground facilities.
After that, I would love to build a system for weekly rocket launches - say, a Mars exploration spacecraft this week and a space telescope next, for example. If the number of rocket-launch opportunities could be increased like this, it would be a drastic change from today’s environment, where launch opportunities come only once every ten years. By reducing the cost and increasing the frequency of launches, we can create a new environment to encourage and facilitate new challenges.
I also think it is important to use commercial, off-the-shelf components for rockets. In rocket technology, out-of-date systems are still commonly used because they are known to be reliable. In other words, rockets are made with a mishmash of very reliable but old-fashioned parts - like the ones used for a cathode ray tube TV, for example. If there is light, cheap and sophisticated commercial off-the-shelf technology, it can help us reduce costs significantly. This could start a revolution in the world of rockets.

Q. What are your future goals and dreams?

My goal for the near future is to bring the ambitious vision of the Epsilon launch vehicle to fruition. What was thought to be impossible a few years ago is finally becoming reality. We would like to finish building the first Epsilon launch vehicle, and then launch it successfully in 2013.
Beyond that, my goal is, again, to build a system that enables frequent rocket launches. I don’t think that people imagined 30 years ago that airplanes would be flying as frequently as they are today. It is my dream to make rockets that can take off as easily as airplanes.

Dr. Yasuhiro Morita, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Space Systems and Astronautics, Institute of Space and Astronautical Science/JAXA
Dr. Morita earned his bachelor’s degree from the Department of Aeronautics, and his doctorate in aeronautics from the School of Engineering, at the University of Tokyo. After working as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the University of British Columbia in Canada, he became a Research Associate in the Department of Systems Engineering at ISAS in 1990 - the year when development of the M-V rocket began. In addition to R&D for systems analysis and attitude control systems for M-V rocket, he was involved in a broad range of studies, including deployable structures for projects such as Mars explorer, and attitude control for small lunar modules. He obtained the full professorship in 2003 in the Department of Space Transportation Engineering at ISAS. He was also appointed project manager of the M-V rocket program in 2003, and has led the Epsilon rocket project since 2007. Among his specialties are rocket attitude control and flexible space structure control.

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