[Viewpoint] To the stars, on our own

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[Viewpoint] To the stars, on our own

The launch of the nation’s first space rocket, Naro-1, has been garnering nationwide attention. The finalized launch schedule heightened the festive mood, but a fax from Russia announcing a delay threw a cold blanket over the anticipation. The scientists and technical specialists in charge of the project welcomed the attention paid to the launch, but felt pressured at the same time. They are afraid of the criticism that will come if the project fails.

Citizens must have many questions. Why do we have to helplessly accept Russia’s unilateral decision to postpone the launch when we paid $200 million for the technology? When we purchase a completed version of the first-stage engine, why should we pay such a large sum of money? It’s like paying 200 million won ($161,000) for an engine on top of a 20 million won automobile. Will the expensive technology collaboration turn out to be helpful when we develop Naro-2, which will lift a satellite 10 times heavier than this one?

The project seems to have fundamental problems, since the project itself requires technology far more advanced than what we have now and the deal with Russia had been signed hurriedly in order to respond to various political demands. In the end, the government chose a safe, easy way in order to achieve 100 percent success without the required research and development.

The technological cooperation with Russia includes more than the purchase of the first-stage rocket. Having no experience with space launches, Korea receives consultations on the overall rocket system design and learns all the procedures related to the rocket launch. Through technological consulting, Korea has learned a great deal about rocket design, and the strict and prudent review and preparation process before the actual launch will prove helpful when Korea pursues rocket development of its own in the future.

Since the former Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik, some 4,200 rocket launches have taken place worldwide, with some 130 cases of failure so far. That’s a success rate of about 97 percent. Since the Naro-1 launch is progressing according to strict Russian guidelines, which have accounted for numerous successes and failures over several decades, it would be safe to assume the success rate for the Naro-1 would be about 97 percent.

Delaying the launch of the Naro-1 is a prudent decision that will contribute to success. When the technical problems are sorted out, experts will schedule a new launch date, and there is no reason to hurry. If Russia wants to test the safety of the new rocket, it won’t be hard to wait a while.

We began the Naro project to learn about the technology, so we need to learn as much as possible and make the most out of the experience to aid in independently developing launch capability in the future.

The uncertainty surrounding the rocket launch is an element that requires our understanding. Even the United States, which successfully launched the Saturn V rocket on a manned mission to the Moon 40 years ago, has experienced failures. Japan also went through various difficulties, including two failed launches because of rockets purchased from the United States in the early stage of their development, and before successfully developing its own rocket program.

We need the spirit to solve problems on our own, even if rocket development takes time and effort. Also, we need to embrace the fact that failure is a part of the course of development. Industrial entities should be given the chance to participate in the project, and there should be a system of sharing responsibility and technology with research institutes.

Moreover, the space development project requires organic collaboration with the aeronautics sector. When multiple government agencies pursue aerospace development projects without order, we cannot expect effective and timely development.

The government needs to install an agency in charge of aerospace and aeronautics to help advance the field. The agency could create and regulate demand for Korea’s aerospace industry and systematically pursue technological developments.

The writer is a professor of aerospace engineering at Seoul National University.

by Kim Seung-jo
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