[Viewpoint] Setbacks lie on the road to success

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[Viewpoint] Setbacks lie on the road to success

Space exploration is fed by dreams. You can’t develop a space program without them. Although dreams are often hindered by politics and money, disappointment and interruption shouldn’t turn them into nightmares. Dreams only become true when they are never given up.

Hideo Itokawa is a Japanese scientist. His dreams were inspired by American aviator Charles Lindbergh. When Lindbergh succeeded in his nonstop solo transatlantic flight, Itokawa was a middle-school student. Touched by Lindbergh’s success, the Japanese boy determined to one day build a plane with his own hands.

To achieve his aspirations, he entered the University of Tokyo’s department of aeronautics and astronautics. After graduation, he joined the Nakajima Aircraft Company, the predecessor of Fuji Industries. At the time, militarist Japan was at war. At Nakajima Aircraft, Itokawa showed enormous talents.

While Mitsubishi’s Zero-sen was the most popular Japanese navy fighter plane, the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa was the tactical fighter used by the Imperial Japanese air force. Until Japan lost World War II in 1945, the fighter jets were the army’s main weapons, and it was Itokawa who designed the aircraft. Taking a stand against suicide attacks by kamikaze pilots, Itokawa also proposed to the military leadership that Japan develop unmanned fighter jets.

After the war, Itokawa returned to the engineering department of the University of Tokyo and pursued research in medical technologies. He developed a brainwave reader and an anesthesia measurement device. Around the same time, he had an opportunity to give a lecture at the University of Chicago about anesthesia. After finishing the lecture, he visited the university’s library and read a paper about the changes the human body experiences in outer space. He immediately concluded that the United States would soon enter the Space Age, and began developing rockets shortly after his return to Japan.

In 1955, Itokawa succeeded in firing a mini-rocket, 23 centimeters in length, 1.8 centimeters in diameter and 200 grams in weight. The first-ever Japanese rocket with solid fuel was named “The Pencil.”

In 1970, Japan launched its first artificial satellite, Osumi, and Itokawa largely contributed to its success. That is why he is called the father of Japanese rockets. He loved playing cello, and on the violin, he produced exceptionally impressive high notes. When he turned 62, he fell in love with ballet, and five years later, the versatile scientist made his debut as Lord Montague in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Itokawa’s dreams were taken up by a younger generation of Japanese scientists. One year before his death in 1998, an American exploration team found an asteroid circling between the Earth and the Mars. The Japanese scientists fired off the Hayabusa spacecraft to explore the asteroid in 2003, and began negotiations with the United States. With U.S. agreement, the asteroid was named Itokawa.

I felt an unexplainable chill when Japan named the spacecraft Hayabusa and the asteroid Itokawa, because the former was the name given to the fighter planes that engaged in numerous air battles with the U.S. military during World War II, and the latter was the man who designed those planes. It gave me a glimpse of Japan’s tenacity and bitterness in the face of defeat.

The Hayabusa spacecraft made a miraculous return on June 13. It is only about half the size of a compact car, but it reached the 540-meter-long asteroid in outer space, and then came back. Over its seven years in space, it traveled 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles). After the space capsule landed in the southern desert of Australia, the main spacecraft burned up. It is no wonder that Japan celebrated Hayabusa’s mission more enthusiastically than it did its national football team’s first victory in the World Cup.

Although Korea has twice failed to successfully launch the Naro rocket, this is only a beginning. Space development is fed not just with dreams, but with failed attempts. In any country, space exploration is built on a series of failures. We should not be too discouraged by two small setbacks.

I firmly believe that the fathers of Korean rockets, who can be compared to Japan’s Itokawa and China’s Qian Xuesen, are still dreaming of space exploration. They are the Naro generation, who experienced the dreams and setbacks of the project in its early stages. I believe Korea’s future is dependent upon the Naro generation, not the older generation obsessed with confrontations.


*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Noh Jae-hyun
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