Two years ago on November 24, 2015 at 15:50, an H-IIA launch vehicle No. 29 carrying "Telstar 12, Vantage", a Canadian telecommunication and broadcasting satellite, was launched from Tanegashima Space Center. It was an epoch-making moment of a successful launch service by a private enterprise for the first time in the Japanese satellite launch service history.
Russia's Proton has nearly one half of the global commercial launch services market followed by Europe's Ariane with 30% share; the remaining market is split between the US's "Delta" and the "Long March" of China. In the United States, Space X, a space venture company has also entered into the market. The satellite launch services market is expected to face even more fierce competition.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, too, entered the global launch service market. We had an opportunity to interview Mr. Yukimoto Nimura, Fellow, Executive Officer, and Chief H-IIA/H-IIB Launch Officer, starting with a question "What are commercial launch services?"
What is most important to commercial launch services?
Commercial launch services are to deliver a satellite or satellites to a specified Earth orbit upon request of a telecommunication and/or broadcasting service provider who uses a satellite. Prior to H-IIA No. 29 launch vehicle, 100% of launch services were for government agencies and national research organizations; in other words it was public service. What is the difference between the public demand and private demand?
Nimura: Commercial launch service exists only because there is a demand to have a satellite delivered on orbit. The customer has a requirement to have it delivered by a specific time. The launch service provider gets paid only when the satellite is put into the space and begins functioning. If the delivery is delayed, there will be penalty for it.
We get paid for the delivery of the satellite at the customer's desired time at the desired orbit. There is nothing more important to commercial launch service than that.
For a parcel delivery, it is good enough to bring the package to the customer's site within 2 hours of a specified window. What do you mean by "delivering a satellite to an Earth orbit at the specific time?"
For example, H-IIB Launch Vehicle No. 6, launched on December 9th, 2016, had the mission to deliver "Kohnotori 6 (HTV6)" to the International Space Station (ISS) "pin-pointedly." ISS appears to be moving at the speed of approximately 8 km/s on its orbit to a person on the ground. It means if the launch was delayed by a mere second, HTV6 would arrive at the place about 8 km away from ISS. The job is to make a delivery to a person who is moving very fast, at about 400 km above the ground with less than one second of margin of error. Now can we imagine how difficult that job would be?
Nimura: The acceptable margin of error for launch is called "launch window (the window during which the launch can be carried out)." As long as the launch is performed within the launch window, it is considered on-time launch. To deliver a satellite to the geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 km above the ground, the launch window is 1 to 2 hours. Should we encounter an issue we can launch the satellite on time if we can solve the problem within the time period. On the other hand, a mission such as HTV6 and Hayabusa, bringing the payload to the site that has a specific orbit has much more stringent launch window requirement. It make us more tense but our task is the same and there is not a big difference.
So far, H-IIA launch vehicle has achieved 14 consecutive on-time launches from No. 20 to No. 33 successfully and H-IIB six. H-IIA No. 19, which failed on-time launch, was the first launch vehicle for which Mr. Nimura was the launch mission director. The cause of missing the launch window was a mechanical problem in the launch vehicle itself. During the delay, a typhoon that took a very complex route went over the launch base. It was such a challenge, Mr. Nimura says, to make launch while this typhoon passed the launch base and turned around to come back taking a circular course.
Nimura: I was able to get a taste of troubles all at once in the first launch where I became the launch mission director. In hindsight, I think I was lucky that I could have this experience in my first launch; if I encounter problems little by little, I might have become tired of them.
Project management where even a single second error is not tolerated.
How is the project "that would not allow an error of blinking moment" precisely managed?
When the customer defines the orbit where the satellite needs to be put into the most optimal date and time for it, in other words, the launch timing is determined. Calculating backwards from that moment the project, which takes about two and a half years from launch vehicle component procurement to launch, starts. The breakdown of the 2.5 year time span is 2 years before launch vehicle parts are delivered from partner venders, and the remaining six months are for assembly of the launch vehicle at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, numerous tests, and the launch in the end. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has a Space Business Unit that is responsible for space-related projects. Each project has a dedicated project manager, who is responsible for cost, component procurement, and schedule management. The successful launch depends on his skills and ability.
A launch vehicle is comprised of about one million parts. This number includes every screw and other small parts; we don't have as many components as they are assembled at partner sites [before being delivered to us.] In any case, it is one of the project manager's responsibilities to manage the overall production schedule including the parts assembled with the components delivered by partners and suppliers.
Nimura: "It is true that a launch vehicle has very large number of parts but there is nothing special in managing them. The key is the same as everyone else's. What is important is to track "in" and "out" of parts; when they are delivered ("in") and what they are used or processed for ("out"). It is the "need date", the due date by when the part must be delivered to us. The need date must be clearly defined based on the number of days required for the subsequent processes. Not all parts arrive in time, unfortunately; as soon as we find out that the delivery is delayed, the downstream tasks and testing have to be adjusted to catch up. This follow-up is the management.
The launch date will never be changed to accommodate a delayed part delivery. It is a puzzle to control complex "ins" and "outs." [Mr. Nimura says] he sometimes becomes panicky in a schedule review.
Nimura: I was the project manager of H-IIA Launch Vehicles No. 5 through 14 and the launch of No.6 failed, which was shortly after arriving at my position. I am the only project manager who experienced a launch failure of the H-IIA.
How the program recovered from the failure of No. 6, which is the only launch failure of H-IIA series, to lead to the successful launch of No.7 and "know why", a lesson learned from the launch failure and an essential concept in manufacturing will be discussed in the next article.