[Viewpoint] This actually is rocket science

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[Viewpoint] This actually is rocket science

The launch of Korea’s first space rocket carrying a satellite has been delayed for a seventh time. The cause of the delay is said to be a glitch in the high-pressure equipment in the engine, though Russian experts told Korean officials that it was not a serious problem. The new launch date is now next Tuesday.

As the nation absorbs the seventh such delay, there are two lessons to be learned.

The first is the absolute principle that the decision to launch a rocket should be based on 100 percent certainty, or at least as close to that as humanly possible. A space rocket project contains all kinds of delicate state-of-the-art technologies, and we cannot afford to have even the slightest problem. If a project that has cost 500 billion won ($398.8 million) fails because of a small mistake, it will result in an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money. Moreover, if a launch is not prepared meticulously, there is a risk of explosion, which can cost lives.

Foreign examples illustrate that delays are very common. NASA delayed the launch of space shuttle Endeavour three times in 2009 when it found a problem related to a tank in the ground fueling facility. It is common sense to halt a launch unless it is prepared perfectly. Statistics show that engine problems account for about 50 percent of failed or delayed rocket launches, while 20 percent can be pinned on problems during flight and 12 percent on the failure of separation of the first- and the second-stage rockets. Since an engine glitch is the most common cause of failure, it is absolutely necessary to conduct a checkup completely and thoroughly.

The second lesson stems from the seven separate delays, which hammer home the reality that we will have to develop a rocket with indigenous technology at some point. Since the first-stage engine - the key element of the Naro-1 space rocket - is made and provided by Russia, the launch schedule has to be adjusted according to that country’s circumstances, opinions and advice.

If there’s a problem, Russian experts must fix it. The second-stage rocket, on the other hand, was developed by Korean scientists without foreign assistance, so we can prepare and inspect it according to our schedule and adjust the date accordingly.

A rocket launch obviously is not a simple task. Even if the weather over Naro Space Center is clear, we cannot launch a rocket if there’s a typhoon in the sea near the Philippines. A radar device that confirms the satellite’s proper entry into orbit has to be loaded on a 3,000-ton vessel operated by the Jeju Maritime Police and sail for several days to reach waters near the Philippines.

At the same time - and even during ideal weather conditions - the country has to notify the International Maritime Organization at least a week in advance of any launch. These are just some of the many complicated preparation steps associated with a rocket launch.

The physical calculation of getting an artificial satellite to orbit outside the atmosphere and the cutting-edge technology of using liquid oxygen at the extremely low temperature of negative 183 degrees Celsius (negative 293 F) means there isn’t room for even the slightest mistake.

That’s why many developed countries with plenty of experience are very tense when it comes to rocket launches. As we witnessed while waiting for a liftoff after the injection of liquid oxygen, the temperature is so cold that the clearly written sign, “Republic of Korea,” on the rocket was completely covered with frost.

About 150 Russian technicians and experts are stationed at the Naro Space Center to help prepare the launch. The cost of their stay is 30 million won per day and is covered by Russia.

The Russian team wants a successful and timely launch as well. Since the launch is the first such event from Korean soil, we are going through a trial-and-error period. The citizens need to watch the process patiently and continue to encourage those involved in the project.


*The writer is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kyung-min
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