Fuji: Bringing the Mountain to the Masses


Fuji’s Standard System configuration, showing its three components separating for re-entry. The crew would return in the saucer-shaped Core Module, centre, while the propulsion and habitation modules would be allowed to burn up. The Core Module could also be flown solo, in Fuji’s Minimum System. Based on an image from NASDA/JAXA. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A Japanese proposal to develop a manned space capsule as part of an effort to produce an “open architecture” for space travel, announced to the public in September of 2001. Intended to be launched on a Japanese H-IIA rocket, or an Ariane, or a Russian rocket (and even conceivably an American one), it would start with a very wide and flat ballistic capsule suitable for short LEO missions. It would soon be extended with a habitation module and a propulsion module for longer missions and missions to higher orbits.

Details: In 2003 China became the third country to launch a person into space entirely on its own accord. The surprising thing is that it took so long for the Astronaut Club to grow from two to three. The first two countries to qualify did so over a period of a few weeks in the spring of 1961, and then it was another 42 years before they had any company.

By the late 1980s both the European Community and Japan had active space programs and, at first blush, the economic heft to match the USA in 1961—but both failed to take advantage of it. The rise and fall of the European spaceplane Hermes is for another time, as is the strikingly similar Japanese HOPE, but in the particular case of Japan they also made an attempt at a simpler manned spacecraft. While it came along sufficiently late in the day that they wouldn’t have beaten Yang Liwei into orbit, Japan could have had a way into space during the second set of Shuttle-disaster doldrums to hit the United States, and be in an interesting position to get their own astronauts to the ISS (one module of which is Japanese) afterwards.

The Fuji spacecraft was proposed in a way that tried to address the main reason why Europe and Japan didn’t come up with their own manned space programs: there’s as yet no good economic reason, and very few scientific reasons, for people in low Earth orbit. Without the additional boost to nationalist pride that the 1960s USSR, 1960s USA, and 2000s China felt to be valuable, a manned space program in the late 20th century and early 21st produces poor returns that bring out the budgetary knives when a country’s economy hits some bumps. It’s no coincidence that the ESA and Japan’s best efforts towards manned spacecraft took place in the salad days of the late 80s and early 90s.


The extremely wide command module of the Fuji spacecraft. Click for a larger view. Image copyright NASDA/JAXA.

The Minimum System was the simplest form of Fuji. It was a ballistic capsule intended for three, the Core Module (CM), four meters in diameter and only about a meter and a half tall—in other words a very flat shape that resembled an Apollo Command Module that had somehow got itself run over by a steamroller. It’s also reminiscent of the lenticular (read: saucer-shaped) re-entry vehicles considered in the early days of American spaceflight.

The strange shape was driven by one of Fuji’s design goals. The proposal specifically describes the original astronauts and cosmonauts of the 1960s as “supermen” because of their ability to withstand and even work while experiencing high-g forces. Fuji’s designers considered this unacceptable as they wanted to defray the cost of running the system by allowing for commercial passengers of average health. By re-entering at a high angle of attack the Core Module could generate lift and keep the stress on its crew down to 4 gravities.

The Fuji proposal was fairly general, as a full design was to wait until funding was received from the Japanese government, so the mass of the capsule is uncertain. However, the proposal depicts the cheapest possible Fuji mission having an Economy version of the CM share its launcher with a similarly sized commercial satellite from a paying customer, and the launcher is clearly a two-strap on-booster H-IIA, which means it could only lift 10 tonnes into LEO. If the capsule took half of this, it would have been comparable in size to the Russian Voskhod and about 25% smaller than a Soyuz. The former of these could accommodate three people only by sending them in a “shirtsleeve” environment and even the first few varieties of Soyuz couldn’t contain three people in spacesuits, so it’s likely that Fuji would have done the same—especially because the plan was to fly the Economy version with a crew of one and four commercial passengers.

The first manned Minimum System mission was to be launched by 2008, but the bare Core Module would have been restricted to no more than 24-hour missions in a 200 kilometer orbit. This isn’t very useful: if nothing else, the ISS orbits at about 400 kilometers up. As a result, once the Minimum System had been proven NASDA would have moved onto the Standard System. This would have sandwiched the CM between an Expansion Module above it and a Propulsion Module below it. In other words, while the CM may have vaguely resembled something from an American spacecraft, Fuji’s eventual arrangement was to be more like a Russian one.

The Propulsion Module would have packed fuel tanks and a rocket engine that together gave the ship 3,000 meters per second of delta-v. To put it another way, while the Standard Configuration couldn’t orbit the Moon it would have been able to do a lunar flyby in a free return orbit—which fact was also touted as helping keep the program economical by being a commercial draw. Little was said about the Expansion Module, other than it being more volume for the crew to inhabit outside of launch and re-entry; there is a quick mention of attaching robotic arms to it so that Fuji could be used to repair satellites or as a manned space station construction runabout.

The goal for the Standard System was to have it up and running within four years of the first successful Minimum System flight—in other words, 2012 if everything went right.


Fuji’s Core Module returning its crew to Earth under a steerable parafoil rather than a parachute. Based on an image from NASDA/JAXA. Click for a larger view.

At the end of any mission only the Core Module would return. After reaching subsonic speeds, it would have then deployed a parafoil—an idea first considered by the US for the Gemini program but rejected for lack of time to develop it. This would have given the returning crew some ability to direct the last stages of their flight.

NASDA also added one more attempt to make Fuji pay for itself. Without much in the way of details (instead relying almost entirely on the analogy of the IBM PC architecture) they suggest making Fuji’s design as openly available as possible and encouraging the other space-faring nations to freely re-use what Japan developed. Ultimately the goal would be to turn space development into a single large market in which Japan could compete, rather than several isolated smaller ones in the US, Russia, Europe, and so on.

What happened to make it fail: Fuji was proposed just as Japan’s security in the region started becoming more tenuous. North Korea tried launching its first satellite in 1998, but many believed that it was not that at all but rather a cover story for the development of an ICBM. Similarly, negotiations to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon were going badly.

Add on to this the continuing economic growth of China (which allowed the more-than-doubling of their military budget between 1995 and 2000), and Japan would have been under some budget strain even in the best of circumstances. Yet IMF estimates say that recession and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 saw the Japanese economy contract from a nominal GDP of US$5.33 trillion in 1995 to a low of US$3.91 trillion in 1998—and it did not exceed the 1995 figure in any other year prior to 2010.

Accordingly the Japanese government cut spending on science and reorganized their space program by merging NASDA with two other agencies—the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan and the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science—on October 1, 2003 to form the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). While scientific use of space has continued under JAXA they have placed a new emphasis on developing an independent Earth observation capability, apparently at least in part so they can keep a closer watch on North Korea and China without having to rely on US intelligence.

Fuji never made it out the other end of this reorganization. In 2005 JAXA proposed a different spacecraft, one that is intended to be launched on the more capable H-IIB rocket. Whether anything comes of the new plan remains to be seen, however, as it’s a very unaggressive plan to send a man to the Moon by 2025.

What was necessary for it to succeed: This is a hard one, for all that it was a perfectly reasonable spacecraft for its time and place, as two of the three reasons for Japan failing to follow through on it were about as movable as Fuji’s namesake. Japan’s economic crisis had been slowly ripening for a decade or so, while China’s rise seems nearly inevitable in retrospect—at least it doesn’t seem right to speculate on, say, a new bout of Maoist reaction in that country simply to get a spaceship to fly.

The wild card here is North Korea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they did try for a modest rapprochement with the United States, but it foundered on American distrust stemming from the People’s Republic having broken previous two-party agreements. While it’s hard to see Kim Jong-Il sticking to any agreement for good, one with the US that lasted through the early 2000s might have given Japan a sufficient feeling of security that they would think they should go ahead with Fuji despite the contraction of their economy. This is especially true if the agreement also brought a moderate thaw to Sino-Japanese relations, as well it might have.

Even so, it seems likely that NASDA would have felt a budget crunch anyway, and that Fuji would at the very least have happened several years later than initially planned.


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