The Same Old Grind

1 Feb

The Two faces of KoreaAnother “bell and whistle” gimmick South Korea’s new rocket gurus need to master is snazzy live TV feeds. NASA-TV’s live feed provided computer-generated video replete with data of its TDRS-K launch yesterday, and watching the stages separate or the sheath housing the satellite falling away had all the feel of a PC game. And, night launches are more photogenic. Is the United States feeling the heat from Korean upstarts?

“With this launch, NASA has begun the replenishment of our aging space network,” said Jeffrey Gramling, TDRS project manager. “This addition to our current fleet of seven will provide even greater capabilities to a network that has become key to enabling many of NASA’s scientific discoveries.”

TDRS-K was lifted into orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41. After a three-month test phase, NASA will accept the spacecraft for additional evaluation before putting the satellite into service.

The TDRS-K spacecraft includes several modifications from older satellites in the TDRS system, including redesigned telecommunications payload electronics and a high-performance solar panel designed for more spacecraft power to meet growing S-band requirements. Another significant design change, the return to ground-based processing of data, will allow the system to service more customers with evolving communication requirements.

NASA-Tv feed of TDRS-K LaunchHow much junk in space do humans need? Trade-off’s, priorities…oh, why bother? It’s pork barrel – everybody does it! And, demonstrating how fickle nationalism is as a mindset, some South Koreans, leftist and conservative, are ridiculing the Naro because its insufficiently Korean. Actually, that’s the one aspect of the launch I like. I would have preferred an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, but…oy vay!

But the success of the Naro also means that we are passing the intermediate stage in terms of space development. For the first-stage rocket that served as the major launch vehicle, Russia provided a finished version of its newly developed Angara. We originally had a technology collaboration agreement with transfer conditions, but Russia changed things after a controversy erupted over alleged violations of the Missile Technology Control Regime. South Korea can take full credit for perfecting the Korean-model launch vehicle, and it gained a great deal in terms of technology over the course of its independent R&D efforts and its trials and errors with the Naro. This will be a crucial underpinning as we complete development on the KSLV 2, which has been under way separately since 2010.

Judging from how things have gone to date, we can expect to encounter many hurdles, and not just because the performance target of the KSLV 2 is much more ambitious than the Naro’s rocket, the KSVL 1. Realistically, we need that much thrust to get a practical satellite into orbit. A bigger problem is excessive interference by administrators and politicians, as we saw with the Naro‘s development. Things like the political muddle over whether or not to develop technology independently, the rotating cast of managers, and outside pressures on research staff need to become things of the past. They are the reason we have been hearing so many calls to set up an independent body for this. We should also consider keeping the research and industry aspects separate in the interests of efficiency. The role of politics in this process is to provide support, nothing more.

I hope the conglomerates disabuse me of the fear, that this is nothing more than the next multi-generational project to keep South Koreans yoked to a low-cost, export-driven model of development and avoid the messy political questions involved with acting like the middle-ranking economy South Korea estimably and truly is.


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