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[EDITORIAL] Rocket development may need rescheduling

[THE INVESTOR] The government’s plan to develop Korea’s own space launch vehicle for lunar exploration by 2020 is likely to be delayed as the test launch of the rocket scheduled for December 2017 is to be postponed.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute has reported to the government that the development of a 75-ton class liquid engine and fuel tanks for the test launch vehicle is 10 months behind schedule due to difficulties in sorting out technological problems.

The institute had difficulty in ensuring stable combustion of liquid fuel and welding the fuel tanks.

Saying that these problems have been resolved, the institute suggested a 10-month delay would be inevitable in firing off the test rocket. The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning will consult with experts to reschedule the test launch.

If the test launch is delayed by as much as 10 months, the launch of the Korean Space Launch Vehicle-II, which will be mounted with a lunar landing module, is highly likely to be put off as well.

Yet the ministry said it would be premature to conclude that the launch of KSLV-II would be postponed as the launch schedule could afford some delay.

Despite the delay in developing the test vehicle, the government seems reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of having to reschedule the launch of the main carrier rocket.

The government has set an overly tight schedule for its lunar exploration project from the beginning. Under the original plan mapped out by the preceding Lee Myung-bak government, KSLV-II was scheduled to lift off for the moon in 2025.

But in 2012, Park Geun-hye, then the ruling party’s presidential candidate, said during a TV debate that if elected, she would ensure that Korea’s national flag could be hoisted on the moon in 2020. After the election, the government advanced the schedule by five years to keep Park’s pledge.

At the time, the new schedule was seen as overly ambitious in light of Korea’s level of space technology. Korea launched a two-stage space launch vehicle, KSLV-I, in early 2013, but it relied heavily on Russian technology.

KSLV-II is a three-stage carrier rocket more advanced than KSLV-I. But Korea decided to develop it on its own as advanced countries refused to share their technologies.

The government’s rush is understandable in light of the intensifying space race among countries. Korea has to make a determined push to overcome the technological gap with advanced countries in this important field.

Yet pressuring scientists to work on the space project under an overly tight schedule could backfire. The project may have to be rescheduled in consideration of the tough technological challenges facing Korean scientists.
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