Japan Formally Selects Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to Build its Flagship Launch Vehicle

Credit: JAXA

Credit: JAXA


JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, announced today that it has selected Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to develop Japan’s next generation, flagship launch vehicle.

From the official announcement:

“The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) made an announcement to the private sector on February 27, 2014, to compare their proposals and select a prime contractor who can be responsible for launch and space transportation services for a newly developed flagship launch vehicle. As a result, after carefully evaluated proposals including confirmation of application prerequisites and conformity with requirements, we have selected Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. (MHI) as the prime contractor.”

Considering the fact that Mitsubishi builds the current H-IIA and H-IIB launch vehicles, the award hardly comes as surprise. What may come as a challenge however, is meeting the goal of cutting the cost of the current series by half, and making the new booster, likely to be called the H-III, commercially relevant in a changing launch environment which is quite possibly going to be upended by the advent of a partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

Still, as JAXA makes clear, with the H-II having been developed 30 years ago, and the H-IIA 15 years ago, a  failure to engage in a new project would likely result in a loss of Japan’s knowledge base in producing what has proven to be an expensive, but technologically successful launch vehicle.

With the announcement of the new booster project, one which should result in a cryogenic fueled launch vehicle capable of lofting payloads up to 6.5 tons to GTO with the use of up to 6 strap-on solid rocket boosters,  Japan is staking out a claim in the commercial launch industry even as Europe is at odds about what direction to go next in its own launch development program.

What bears consideration however, is what the result may be if SpaceX really is successful in its quest to introduce re-usability.  One emerging question, who among the world’s launch organizations to be the first to join them? And what fate is in store for those carriers who wait too long?

While the introduction of RLV technology is not going to cause spacefaring countries to abandon the goal of having a national launch capability, it may very well make sustaining that capability with expendable launch vehicles even more prohibitively expensive, as commercial customers ultimately flock to partially re-usable systems.

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