Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From A Pencil To A Space Program - The Humble Beginnings of Japan's Reach For Space

In the United States, the space program really began with the first tests of captured V-2 (A-4) rockets from Germany, as well as with American designs, not long after the end of World War II. This happened in the Soviet Union  as well, though instead of just using captured V-2's, they chose to build their own from components and plans found in the crumbling remnants of the Third Reich. Other countries would begin messing with rockets of their own, and by the 1950's, the atmosphere was being probed by a variety of countries. 
One country that wanted to get involved in rocket research was Japan. The strict rules laid down after its defeat mandated that they would have to wait a number of years before beginning anything that could be considered weapons research. By 1954, they were in a position to begin developing their own rockets. The man who led this research was Professor Hideo Itokawa.
In the late 1930's, this promising young aeronautical engineer kicked off his career with Nakajima, designing the Ki-43 Hayabusa for the Imperial Japanese air force. He followed this with the Ki-44 Shoki, which also proved to be a nimble fighter plane. When the war ended, he returned to University of Tokyo and completed his graduate studies. He took up a teaching position at the university, and began thinking about rockets. 
His first rocket was really a joke. He had a student build a paper rocket, ostensibly for wind tunnel testing. Once presented with the completed "rocket", he took it outside and photographed it on the lawn. He gave the photo to a local paper, which was published with a caption that read ""Domestic Rocket No.1 Manufactured Experimentally at University of Tokyo". This was early January of 1955.
Soon, he would manufacture his first true rocket. It was simply called "Pencil". 

(Image by Momotarou2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pencil_Rocket.jpg)

It was small, a little over 9" tall and less than 3/4" in diameter. Think about those measurements for a moment. If they sound familiar, it's because they are very similar to those of a typical model rocket. In fact, the first model rocket patented in the United States was larger, the Carlisle Rock-a-Chute Mark I.

That's where the similarity stops. The Pencil was made out of metals, such as aluminum, and used a solid fuel that ran almost the entire length of the body tube. This fuel was a based on a smokeless charge, a combination of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose. As a result, it was a bit more powerful than your stock model rocket.
When it was initially tested, it was somewhat captive, "flying" along a line and through a series of barriers that allowed Itokawa and his team of researchers to measure its speed and thrust. 
More tests were conducted, and eventually three different versions of the Pencil would be developed; a longer version, named "Pencil 300", so called for its length of 300mm (almost 12"), and a two stage version.

(Image courtesy JASA)
 The first truly free flight of a Pencil took place on August 6th, 1955, on the beach at Michikawa. The rocket used was a Pencil 300. After a false start, where the rocket fell off the pad at the point of ignition and did a few acrobatics on the beach, it was reloaded and fired again, this time with success. It soared to over 1950 feet, and downrange of almost 2300 feet. 
It was a roaring success. 
Michikawa would become the first launch site for Japan's reach into space. 

Prof. Itokawa at a launch. Quite an impressive setup.
(Image courtesy JAXA)
Soon, the Pencil would be replaced with the Baby, a much larger two stage rocket. 

Hideo Itokawa and a Baby
(Image courtesy JAXA)
The Baby, in turn, led to the Kappa series of sounding rockets, which Japan would use during the International Geophysical Year, 1957 - 1958. 

Kappa sounding rockets.
(Image courtesy JAXA)
Professor Itokawa's team would form the core of what would be the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, which is now a part of JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. The rocket that would follow in the footsteps of the Kappa would be the Lambda series. 

(Image courtesy Momotarou2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lambda_Rocket_Launcher.jpg)
The sixth launch attempt with a Lambda rocket, the L4S-5, would launch Japan's first satellite, Ohsumi, on February 11, 1970, some fifteen years after Itokawa's first experiments.
And it all started with a Pencil.

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