[Viewpoint] Launch will lead to eventual successThe historic launch of Korea’s first space rocket, Naro-1, took place a few days ago. When the rocket lifted off, the first stage was working wonderfully. However, less than an hour after the blastoff, news that the STSAT-2 (Science and Technology Satellite-2) failed to enter the target orbit disappointed us all.
The government stated that one of the protective shields over the satellite at the top of the rocket did not dislodge properly.
Because of the weight of the remaining shield, the satellite failed to gain the velocity required to reach the target orbit. Because of the failure, the satellite is presumed to have fallen in a parabolic motion into the atmosphere where it disintegrated due to the extreme heat caused by friction.
In the commercial rocket industry, it is considered a failed launch if a satellite is not put into its target orbit. However, we must remember that every single part and system in the Naro space rocket has been newly developed.
This was the initial test flight for the entire technological package. In a test flight, verifying the launch and rocket technologies are objectives that are as crucial as putting the satellite into orbit.
In this respect, the launch accomplished much. It proved the efficacy of the first-stage liquid propulsion engine, second-stage rocket ignition, separation of the two rockets and separation of the satellite. The only failure was that of the separation of the protective shields on the satellite that were supposed to fall into the Pacific Ocean.
A governmental investigation committee will use technological analysis to find the exact cause of the problem.
Due to current Korean technological limitations, the first-stage liquid propulsion engine was supplied by Russia. It’s very hard to quickly develop a homegrown space booster through acquiring fundamental technology.
If Korea were to develop the first-stage space rocket launcher technology on its own, we would have to go through a painful trial and error period. That being said, it is still certainly regrettable that the failed launch could not give national pride to young Koreans.
I would also like to recognize the efforts of - and send consolations to - space center researchers and their staff members who have done their best for the nation for so long.
We cannot give up now. There has to be a revolutionary paradigm shift in the development of the space rocket. The rocket engine technology is shared by the civilian and military sectors, and foreign technological cooperation has to be limited.
We have confirmed that the benefit of acquiring technology by importing an engine system is limited. After the two test launches, we cannot reproduce the Naro rocket again.
Of course, we have learned rocket system assembly, test technology, launch operation technology and launch facility construction technology from the Naro project.
Acquiring independent technology to build our own full system would be a distant dream without the know-how to develop the first-stage rocket engine.
Therefore, we need to have a more realistic and reasonable approach for the next-generation KSLV-II development project. The project needs to take our technological ability, experience, manpower and infrastructure into account. Also, we should not commit a misjudgment by sticking to a schedule that is technically unfeasible.
Since it is a long-term project that will take over a decade, phase-by-phase performance analysis should be provided as the project progresses.
A launch should not be a one-time event, and we need to develop a reliable launcher and engine as well as a strategy to make it commercially viable.
Now is the time to seriously contemplate how we develop Korea’s space competency.
Instead of showy events, we need to learn fundamental technologies. It is more important to acquire substantial technology in a failed launch than have a couple of successful but shallow attempts. When we can develop, launch and reproduce a homegrown rocket with indigenous technology, Korea will be a full-fledged member of the “space club.”
I hope Korea will become a space power with real technology through a paradigm shift in rocket launch development.
*The writer is a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Korea Aerospace University.
by Chang Young-keun