The Japanese lost a rocket with its payload of surveillance satellites the other day.
Given the current dangerous situation in the Korean peninsula, in their own backyard across the Sea of Japan, it was a painful loss, and one that they really couldn't afford. The North Koreans have launched missiles across Japanese territory, and are brazenly developing nuclear weapons, so far unhindered by either diplomacy or threats, and a lack of space-based intelligence about their behavior and intentions could prove disastrous in the future, perhaps even in the near future.
Unfortunately, in developing their own space capabilities, the Japanese have taken a cue from our own failed space activities, having no successful ones to emulate. Like NASA and, for the most part, the Air Force, they delude themselves that affordable and reliable launchers can be built by souping up ballistic missiles and flying them a few times a year.
In the 1980s, the Japanese became renowned for the high quality of their automobiles, an ironic turn of events, because a scant few years earlier they had developed a reputation for cheap, unreliable toys masquerading as cars. I can attest to this personally, as an owner and semi-daily driver of a Honda from that period with over a quarter of a million miles on it, and still on its first clutch with no major repairs to date.
They accomplished this by importing American concepts of statistical quality control from people like W. Edwards Deming. By continually improving their production processes over millions of units, they gradually achieved a world-class ability to build reliable and long-lasting cars that eventually forced the American auto industry out of its complacency, though not before entirely restructuring it and, in some cases, forcing mergers or causing parts of it to be bought out by foreign interests.
They were so successful in adapting American techniques for their terrestrial transportation industry, that they hoped they could be equally successful in space transportation by following the same strategy.
There were only two problems. First, neither the Americans nor the former Soviets were actually that good at doing space. Their launch systems were extremely expensive and highly unreliable. They only seemed good at it because there was never any truly good space program with which to compare them.
Consider--the most reliable proven launch system is probably the Soviet (now Russian) Proton. According to International Launch Services, the western firm that markets it, and has a strong interest in putting the best face on its capability, it has a 96% reliability record in about 300 launches over the past four decades. They state this with apparent pride.
Let's put that in everyday terms.
Imagine that once out of every twenty five times you drove to the grocery store, you not only didn't get there, but your car was destroyed with all aboard.
Imagine that four times out of every hundred flights of an airliner, it was lost with all passengers. That would amount to thousands of downed aircraft per year and millions of lives, assuming that you could get the airlines to continue to buy replacement airplanes, and people to purchase tickets on death's lottery, with such appalling odds.
Can you imagine anyone with a straight face, and not a hint of irony, calling such a vehicle "reliable"? It's no way to run a railroad or, for that matter, an airline or auto industry. We shouldn't accept it in space either, yet we do.
What's the problem? I've written before about how the low volume of activity leads inevitably to high costs. But it also leads to low reliability.
The biggest difference between Japan's auto industry and Japan's rocket industry is not the almost unfathomable power that the rockets put out, or the harsh environment in which they operate, or their high cost per rocket. The biggest difference is that, as noted above, they built millions of cars, and they've built, at most, dozens of rockets.
There's an old aphorism that "quantity has a quality all its own." For this particular case, there's a reverse corollary--quality requires a quantity all its own. Statistical quality control is very useful when running a million cans of beans, or a million Honda Accords off a production line.
However, it's meaningless when only building a few of something, and only using (and in this case, expending them) a few times a year. There's almost no measurable learning curve, and because they're expendable, making each flight a first flight, there's no opportunity for the traditional "shakedown cruise." Infant mortality is high, and so, when we lose the baby, we also lose the bathwater, the bathtub, the bathroom, and the house that contains them all.
There's only one way out of this dilemma. We have to make a conscious national decision to do enough in space to start climbing the learning curve, rather than remaining at a base camp at the bottom. Until we make a deliberate choice to become a truly spacefaring nation, we will never have either affordable launch, or reliable launch (and unreliability has its own obvious costs, making the status quo even more unaffordable).
If the government, whether ours or Japan's, wants and needs assured access to space (and both must clearly think they do, because they continue to spend and perhaps misspend billions of dollars on it), it will have to decide to buy more than it thinks it needs to ensure that it has what it needs at an acceptable price. The decision makers must consider the possibility of simply putting out an order for currently-unthinkable numbers of launches and pounds of payload to orbit, to allow the private sector to do what it does best--driving down costs and increasing quality through competition and volume.
In the long run, it may turn out to be a bargain, and it's hard to imagine how we could do much worse--we certainly can't afford to continue with the failed thinking that carpeted the seabed with two more expensive (and perhaps, considering the stakes, priceless) satellites just a few days ago.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.