South Korea launched its first space launch vehicle, the KSLV-I, or Naro rocket, from the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province, near the end of last month. While the launch was unfortunately unsuccessful, the move still marks a significant step forward for the country, with encouraging consequences for the future of Korean space flight.
At 5pm on August 25, Naro blasted off 15 minutes after the automatic countdown began. The rocket flew south, over the Philippine Sea. Fifty-four seconds after the takeoff, the rocket exceeded the sound barrier. Three minutes and 35 seconds later, its upper section separated. Three minutes and 49 seconds after the takeoff, its first-stage engine was ordered to stop and three minutes and 52 seconds later, its first-stage rocket separated.
Six minutes and 35 seconds after the takeoff, the second-stage rocket was ignited. And seven minutes and 33 seconds later and the first-stage combustion ended. The satellite control operators waited to receive a signal from the rocket's payload, but the launch failed to put the satellite into the orbit.
The problem seems to have been with the second stage separation, which occurred later and higher than intended. The first stage of the rocket was supplied by Russia, while the second stage was developed in-house by Korean engineers, and was undergoing development since 2002.
Unlike its northern brother, South Korea spent considerable time preparing the public for this eventuality. It repeatedly emphasized that only three of the existing seven space-faring nations put a satellite into orbit on their first tries. Also, the country was frank with discussing the difficulties of integrating the second-stage Korean-made rocket with the Russian technology of the first stage. Korean scientists are upbeat about the experience, saying that they have learned a great deal from the integration and launch of the rocket, and are definitely willing to try again.
Basically, the failure of the rocket should not be taken too far or treated with undue significance. In the vein of all high-technology space-faring nations, the South Korean program will analyze its mistakes, learn from them, and try again. These failures are actually an integral part of developing anything as complicated as true rocket science. This launch can be seen as evidence that there are not major technological walls to prevent South Korea from launching rockets in the future - only the devil in the details needs to be exorcised. Next time, or the time after that, the country will launch something into space. It is only a matter of time.
Why Space, and Why Now
The major question is not whether Korea will succeed in getting to space, but why. South Korea already has amiable relations with most of the other space-faring nations, and already has more than ten satellites in space launched with foreign technology. Why is South Korea aiming to get to space on its own One answer is for military purposes.
Space is becoming increasingly important in defense and in modern military campaigns. Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are essential for conducting modern warfare. You can see anything and everything with an eye in the sky, and all modern war doctrine is based on that all-seeing intelligence. Being able to put up space-based assets on the fly, without reliance on other countries, is an important aspect of solidifying national defensive autonomy.
And the further away from home that military business happens, the more important space appears to be. A localized conflict only needs a small amount of space-based resources, but a campaign elsewhere needs a very large network of space-based assets. Building army, naval, and air forces beyond a certain point without space-based assets is also a futile effort, as the units will become increasingly unwieldy and ineffective. Even the most basic of maneuvers becomes impossible without being able to identify the location of targets for today's modern weapons.
Self-defense Above All
One could say that both South Korea's and Japan's space programs are similar in this respect. Both countries rely on Big Brother US right now for national security. This is a generally amiable relationship, except in the case of South Korea for periodic bursts of civilian protest. Nevertheless, both countries rely on the willingness of the US to share intelligence gathered by its own satellite network, and its focus on Japan's or South Korea's regional problems. A preoccupied US can actually be bad for both country's national security, and the US has been quite preoccupied for the last several years.
Both countries, South Korea and Japan, recognize that self-reliance when it comes to defense is preferable to reliance on a benevolent but preoccupied ally. Both countries are increasing their capability to defend themselves against their eternally-warlike neighbor independent of American assistance. Both countries recognize that space is one of the most important aspects of their military assets with which they are both not satisfied. The Japanese H-IIA rocket is significantly more advanced and capable than Korea's offering of the KSLV-1, but this is Korea's first real step in what is sure to be a program resulting in the successful launch of indigenous satellites for Seoul.
This is also a kind of race against time, because even though space is gigantic by definition, the desirable low-earth orbits are becoming very crowded. In February of this year there was even an unintended collision of two communications satellites. Satellite positions are becoming an increasingly rare commodity. Since China has recently demonstrated its satellite-killer capability, South Korea already realizes that space is already weaponized. Though these weapons may not yet be fully deployed in orbit, every country knows how valuable space is to military operations, which makes it a possible battleground by definition. South Korea, like China and Japan before it, is simply entering the field of battle to ensure its own safety.