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Japan's space program lifts off -- riding piggyback on US

The search will begin shortly for Japan's first astronaut -- to oversee Japanese scientific experiments on an American space shuttle mission in 1986. This symbolizes Japan's space program to date. It has come a long way since the first pencil-thin rockets wobbled into sub-space in the early 1970s. But it could not have done it without a piggyback ride from the United States.

Japan's National Space Development Agency (NASDA) has overcome strict budgetary restraints to make Japan one of only four world space powers with technology sophisticated enough to launch a geostationary satellite (which remains over the same spot on earch continuously).

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The agency's total budget this year is just under $500 million (the US spent over $8 billion to put up the first space shuttle).

A 15-member committee of experts, however, recently recommended that a lot more money should be injected to develop more home-grown space technology, which has been neglected as Japan has chosen to save time by relying heavily on proven American equipment.

There is talk some day of a Japanese space shuttle, but for now this country will make do with rented space on the US version.

The NASDA official in charge of the project, Akira Kubozono, explains that Japan's space experiments fall into two main categories: (1) the potential for creating new metallic alloys in the zero-gravity conditions of space, and (2) development of new medicines and medical techniques.

Both will be in a payload to be carried aloft in a 1986 spacelab mission with the country's first astronaut scientist. NASDA will soon seek about 100 initial applicants to be trimmed down to three or four to be sent to the US in 1984 for NASA training.

The Japanese scientific community is excited about the possibility that new metal compounds can be created in space which will be stronger, lighter and more heat-resistant than existing metal alloys made under normal gravity conditions on earth. These would be of immense value in engine development, aircraft and space vehicle production, and in semiconductors (which allow for the creation of more efficient, smaller computers).

Initial experiments in space have shown that various metallic combinations when melted down in an electric furnace under zero gravity eventually reform free of the impurities that inevitably creep inunder normal conditions on earth.

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To prepare for the mission, Japan has begun sending up small experimental metals-recombination payloads on a solid-fuel "sounding rocket." There is to be a launch every six months.

This particular rocket has a range of about 300 miles, with the payload spending six minutes in zero gravity before plunging back into the atmosphere.

The program has had its setbacks. Because Japan is so small and crowded, the payload has to be recovered at sea, which is harder than on land.

The second experimental launch last February was a total disaster, since the payload sank like a stone to the oceanfloor before the rescue vessel could reach it.

With it went an expenditure of $37 million that left NASDA's government paymasters very unhappy.

Mr. Kubozono says analysis indicated technical failure. "The recovery system was too sophisticated, so we are reverting to a simpler, more reliable method."

Aprt from the spacelab project, NASDA is heavily involved in preparing for "third generation" geostationary satellites to be put into orbit after 1985 (the first two generations sent up were largely experimental) for a variety of purposes, including weather observation, communications and broadcasting, maritime navigation aids and earth resources observation.

NASDA spokeswoman, Michiko Ikeda explains that these will be carried into space by a three-stage H-1 rocket, capable initially of lifting a payload of about 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) and later 800 kilograms (1,760 lbs).

Only six years ago, the first payload-carrying Japanese rocket, the N-1, developed with a lot of American help, could lift no more than 130 kilograms ( 286 lbs).

Miss Ikeda says the H-1 will be built in Japan, with the first stage using a great deal of American technology under license, but the second and third stages entirely Japanese developed.

The first stage is where the most power is needed to get the mass of metal off the ground, and on sheer power the Japanese admit they still have a lot to learn.

But they are confident that in the hardware and software now going into the satellites, the need to rely on the US has now been reduced in many cases to almost nothing.

In fact, space engineers here foresee a time when America's space program may be tapping Japanese technology in return.