Is third time‘s the charm?
After successive setbacks, Korea cautiously hopes for rocket success
By Cho Mu-hyun
GOHEUNG, South Jeolla Province ― The Korean attempt at joining the Asian space race has so far been epitomized by rockets that jam up or explode prematurely.
But after failing in consecutive efforts to launch a satellite from the country’s own Naro Space Center, scientists and engineers at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) are gritting their teeth for redemption as they prepare the third launch of the Korea Space Launch Vehicle 1 (KSLV-1) scheduled for October.
It would be a stretch to say that the odds for a successful launch have improved meaningfully. The core technology for the KSLV-1 project is provided by KARI’s Russian partner, which works under a contract that prevents any form of transfer in skills and know-how. This leaves KARI officials with limited knowledge on what will be tried differently this time around.
Yes, Korean skies are usually great around October, but weather was never a factor in the failures of the two previous launches.
Nonetheless, the stakes are higher than ever for KARI. And this is ironically because the KSVL-1 project is closer to a glorified publicity stunt than a meaningful attempt at establishing the country’s identity in the space sector.
Korea will never have a realistic shot at competing in the commercial space launch industry, something the tiny Naro Space Center was never built for, and will have to find its niche in designing sophisticated spacecraft like satellites and lunar modules.
However, the required level of investment in space-related technologies and industries will always be dependent on strong political backing, which will come much easier if the KSLV-1 succeeds and becomes a trophy. So while rockets are a rare business where success rates in the 50s are acceptable, KARI officials know they could ill-afford a third setback.
In its first launch in August 2009, the KSLV-1 achieved desired speed and height, but failed to release its payload satellite properly into orbit. The second launch in October 2009 was even more embarrassing, as the rocket blew up just 137 seconds after liftoff. This triggered a heated debate between KARI and the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, the Russian technology providers, over who shoulders the blame and thus the larger part of the bill for the third launch.
The Khrunichev Center produces the lower assembly of the two-stage KSLV-1 that contained the rocket engine and liquid-fuel propulsion system, while KARI is responsible for the upper part of the rocket that holds the satellite.
Cho Gwang-rae, a senior KARI official chiefly involved in rocket development and the operation of the launch pad, suffered from a ``fatigue of the heart” according to one of his colleagues, due to the past experiences. While Cho said he was satisfied about how the preparation process has progressed so far, he was more reticent in stating an explicit judgment in the outcome on the third launch to be held in October.
``We have formed boards investigating reasons for the previous failures, and have taken its suggestion in preparing for the third launch,’’ Cho said. ``Though we have closely inspected the video footage of the launches, Russia has noted, and we agree that the precise reason for the failure is difficult to determine.’’
Tahk Min-jae, a leading aerospace expert at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), expressed frustration over the fact that the Koreans continue to have little control over the fate of the current rocket project.
``We can’t completely trust Russia, as they will not hand over the information concerning the first stage,’’ he said.
``They do not hand over the records (related to the first stage) we have no background to argue against them if they deny responsibility. Korea is working in a very difficult environment, but I sincerely hope that the third launch, based on the previous failures, become a success.’’
The three launches will cost more than 505.2 billion won (about $446 million) in Korean taxpayer money, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. And that doesn’t’ even include the 330 billion won bill for the spaceport.
Kwon Se-jin, a spacecraft developer at KAIST, claimed that the previous two launches were insufficient to allow a conclusive judgment on the third launch and noted the need for more funding.
``Considering the time Korea has invested in outer space technology, we are comparatively behind other nations, and it is hard to predict the outcome (of the third launch,’’ he said.
“Russia, the United States and other countries who pioneered in space technology had an established understanding of ballistic missiles, and they expanded that to space rockets. Though we have accumulated substantial information on ballistic missiles, because of our agreement with America, our military and space department work separately,” he added.
The KARI team are currently materializing KSLV-II, the sequel to KSLV-I, that will launch a much heftier 1.5 ton satellite and are planning to launch it near the year 2020. The secured budget of 1.54 trillion won may seem a huge amount to the average person, but Kwon says the amount is not enough in the engineer’s view.
“The United States spends 20 trillion won just for maintenance with the proper hardware already in place. The expected launch date of 2020 for Korea is very tight. The amount of investment is directly proportionate to the success of an outer space rocket launch,” said Kwon.
“The success of the launch in October will not have a direct impact on domestic technological advancement. But rather it will be a start in a wider interest by the people of Korea on outer space technology.”
The KARI team is continuously conducting ground tests using mock-ups to prepare for any contingency that may occur during actual launch day.