[INTERVIEW] Hanwha Aerospace CEO crosses fingers ahead of big tests
The coming weeks will be make-or-break for Korea’s aerospace industry with the planned launch of a domestically-developed rocket and of Korea’s first lunar probe.
Hanwha Aerospace has played a key role in Korea's reach for the stars as it makes engines for the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-II (KSLV-II), also known as Nuri-ho.
The second launch of the KSLV-II is set for June 15, following its first launch last October. The three-stage vehicle reached the right altitude but failed to place a 1.5-ton dummy payload into the desired orbit.
A total of four launches are planned through 2027. Korea’s first lunar orbiter, named Danuri, is also scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Aug.1 to carry out a yearlong observation mission.
Hanwha Aerospace CEO Shin Hyun-woo is looking farther.
Shin is spearheading the engine manufacturer’s push to develop more advanced engines for a rocket with a reusable launch system.
The Korean government plans to test-launch the successor to the KSLV-II, by 2030, with an aim of sending a lander to the Moon. The 1.9 trillion-won ($ 1.5 billion) project will run from 2023 through 2031.
Hanwha Aerospace wants to be chosen as the engine supplier and to also oversee design and management of the new rocket with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, according to Shin.
As for the upcoming launch of the KSLV-II, Shin struck a positive tone in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, saying the company tested the performance of the engines more thoroughly than for the first launch. Shin also discussed ongoing space missions and the strategy of Hanwha Aerospace for the future.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
I can’t hold back my nervousness and anxiety. This is the kind of project that even figures like Elon Musk sometimes failed at. We need to remember that Korea is at a very nascent stage when it comes to space technology. Korea is about 10 years behind the United Sates in satellite technology, 15 years in space probes and 18 years in rockets.
The second launch is only a week away. How do you feel?
So, as much as I want to make it, we could fail. But a bright side can be seen from the first launch.
The consensus is that the first stage is the most challenging part of the launch due to the four clustered 75-ton engines, but the liquid engines successfully powered the Nuri-ho, followed by the successful performance of the second and the third stage engines.
I believe – with cautious expectations - that we can bring back success this time too. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute aptly analyzed the reasons behind the failure of the first launch. It found that the glitch was caused by a faulty design of an oxidizer tank in the third stage. The results of the investigation into the cause of the failure were very detailed and that capability is a positive sign for future launches because such an evaluation requires a very high level of data analysis.
Given that engine development is the key to a space launch system, the company’s experience with the Nuri-ho project can serve as a proven track record and as a reference for future space launch programs. As the government plans to initiate a new project to develop and launch a larger and more advanced rocket than the Nuri-ho, we can use our experience on the Nuri-ho. The new rocket will be designed to carry heavier satellites with an aim of reusing key parts in a similar way that Space X has done. The government is scheduled to open bidding in June for a group of partner manufacturers.
How can Hanwha Aerospace use its experience with the Nuri-ho for future business?
Hanwha Aerospace brought together a dedicated team in preparation for bidding on this post Nuri-ho project. The new rocket needs to be designed with more precision and higher thrust power.
One of the biggest differences from the ongoing one is that the new initiative will be a public-private partnership model. The private sector will play a bigger role since the government aims to transfer more knowledge and skills from the project to private companies.
So, I think we are an ideal suitor because of our successful track record.
We have also access to a whole range of aerospace technologies thanks to ties with our related companies. For instance, Hanwha Corporation specializes in thrusters and Hanwha Systems in satellite payloads and ground-based infrastructure.
Hanwha Aerospace is involved in different missions, both independently and with Hanwha’s related companies, through a group-wide organization named Space Hub.
What are other space missions or projects that Hanwha Aerospace is involved in?
One example is a collaboration with other state-run institutes for research on in situ resource utilization (ISRU). ISRU is the practice of collection and use of materials found or manufactured on celestial bodies. Since it costs a lot to bring supplies from Earth, astronauts should be able to employ resources from where they are.
It is important to note that the project is more of a feasibility study about how crews could use materials found on space objects.
But the research will be aligned with the government’s lunar probe mission as Korea’s first lunar probe is scheduled to be launched in August. Korea’s membership in the Artemis Accords, a U.S.-led lunar exploration mission, will help the company better research resources on the Moon.
With the signing of the Artemis Accords, Korea is supposed to engage in research for the Artemis Program, NASA’s lunar exploration mission aimed at landing the first female astronaut and a male astronaut on the Moon.
We also formed a consortium with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, Korea Aerospace University and others last April to develop next-generation avionics system. Avionics refers to a category of electronic systems and equipment specifically designed for use in aviation.
Different companies with aerospace-related businesses work together through the Space Hub. The participating companies include Hanwha Corporation, Hanwha Aerospace and Hanwha Systems. They manage their strategic alliance with partners including the Satrec Initiative. The new Space Hub is tasked with spearheading investment and recruitment for aerospace businesses and carrying out joint projects.
How does the company collaborate with other Hanwha companies?
One example of an endeavor is that the Space Hub team and KAIST agreed to invest 10 billion won in a space research center. The first initiative at the center will involve the development of inter-satellite-link technology, which connects all satellites operating within a constellation and provides point-to-point data transfers between any two satellites.
Hanwha Corporation and Hanwha Aerospace are jointly researching a range of technologies required for the development of low-cost, small-sized launch vehicle.
In the future, outer space could become a new destination for logistics, tourism, accommodations and the agriculture industries. If those businesses flourish, demand for bigger infrastructure such as waste management and gas stations will rise.
The media says the world is entering a “New Space Age” where commercial space tourism and exploration will be possible. What is Hanwha Aerospace doing to capitalize on the new era?
Still, it will take some time for the vision to be realized. With the capital-intensive, long-term nature of the aerospace industry, Hanwha Aerospace strives to make investments and decisions from long-term perspectives.
The Nuri-ho is considered a large-sized rocket and requires a huge expenditure, so it is in its own category. This is why we are reviewing the manufacturing of a launch vehicle designed for small-sized satellites. In a project with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, we are developing a small-scale rocket capable of sending a satellite under 500 kilograms into outer space. Smaller satellites could become part of satellite constellations and be applied in a broader range of projects.
The main aim of the New Space Age is to lower the costs of space flight so the technology could be more widely commercialized. What is Hanwha Aerospace doing in this regards?
To accelerate the growth of small-scale launch vehicles and satellites in Korea, the government should use more spacecraft developed by domestic producers when they run state-run projects for observation and telecommunication purposes.
As I noted before, since Korea is in a very early stage in space technology, local companies haven’t been able to accumulate sufficient experience. So the role of government is crucial.
The company is focusing on developing advanced engines and electric propulsion system for personal air vehicles. Given that urban air mobility will play a critical role in leading sustainable transportation, we have undertaken the development of a battery-powered propulsion system to become an early mover.
Hanwha Aerospace manufactures a wide range of parts for rockets, defense vehicles and industrial machinery. Does the company plan to produce components for more passenger-oriented vehicles?
In the manufacturing process, we are trying to integrate technologies like three-dimensional printing.
The current stage is very early as we have started devising a manufacturing process based on the new technology. The main purpose is to produce a material essential to make gas turbines.
We are committed to making constant investment into the aerospace field to learn core technologies and solid business models. The company is exploring new investment targets. We are open to all options from established units outside of Korea to start-ups with promising ideas. Acquisitions will be critical to gain knowledge in space technology comparable with advanced economies.
Hanwha Aerospace recently bought a 30 percent stake in Satrec Initiative. Is the company on the lookout for new acquisitions?
BY PARK EUN-JEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]