TANEGASHIMA, Japan – Fifteen months after Japan's last liftoff ended in a spectacular fireball, an orange and white H-2A rocket blasted off Saturday on a mission officials hope will revive this country's once proud space program — now languishing in China's shadow.
The 174-foot-tall rocket, with the word "Nippon," or Japan (search), emblazoned on its side, lifted off into a cloudy sky just before sunset from the sprawling space center on this remote southern island. The rocket carried a multipurpose weather and navigation satellite.
About 40 minutes later, mission control announced the rocket had successfully delivered its payload into orbit.
Japan's space agency, JAXA (search), was counting on a successful launch to help revive the reputation of the H-2A, which serves as the centerpiece of this country's space program, and to demonstrate that Japan remains a viable contender in an increasingly heated Asian space race with China.
All H-2A launches had been put on hold following a humiliating failure in November 2003, when a booster failed to detach and controllers had to detonate the rocket and its payload of two spy satellites just minutes after liftoff.
The setback was all the more frustrating because it came a month after China successfully launched its first astronaut into orbit. Beijing has since announced it is aiming for the moon.
It was a severe setback. Japan had long seen itself as Asia's leading space-faring nation since it became the fourth country in the world to launch a satellite in 1972. Yet Tokyo still has no manned space program of its own. Aware of the Chinese challenge, a government panel last year recommended that Japan begin studying the possibility of sending astronauts into space.
Japanese officials stress that the country's space program can afford only one or two launches a year because it is strictly nonmilitary. They say that is the main reason why Japan — despite being Asia's richest and most technologically advanced nation — is falling behind China.
But the nature of Japan's space program is changing.
The perceived threat from communist neighbor North Korea (search), which sent a Taepodong 1 (search) missile flying high over Japan's main island in 1998, has provided a strong impetus for Tokyo to beef up its space capabilities.
As part of a $2 billion program, Japan launched its first spy satellites months before the 2003 failure. Another set of spy satellites is now awaiting launch, though a date has not been set.
Though controversial in Japan and strongly condemned by Pyongyang, the spy satellite program is not technically a military one — it is not paid for through military funds, and officials say it poses no threat to North Korea or any other country.