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The Life of Rocket Pioneer Hideo Itokawa: Successful People Fail at First

Hideo Itokawa was a leading aeronautical and rocket engineer. But it wasn't always smooth sailing. Failures are part and parcel of any worthwhile endeavor.



Hideo Itokawa with the Kappa-9L rocket. The first Kappa rocket was launched in 1956 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The late Dr Hideo Itokawa, the father of Japanese rocketry, faced the greatest crisis of his life in the final months of World War II. He had worked on the design of fighter planes such as the Ki-43 Hayabusa. However, as Japan approached defeat, his colleagues ebbed away from him.

But Dr Itokawa stayed on the team. As his colleagues left, he was inundated with bills for development expenses. Officials avoided him when he approached the Army Aviation Headquarters. Dr Itokawa eventually sold all of his household goods to pay his bills, only to have the GHQ (US General Headquarters) ban all aeronautics research. He was at rock bottom and contemplated suicide every day.

Unable to pursue his ambition in rocket science, Dr Itokawa researched brain waves and acoustic engineering instead. After the hiatus, he managed to return to his previous profession. In 1955, he successfully developed and tested Japan's first solid-fuel rocket, the Pencil Rocket. His disciples and grand disciples went on to lead future space exploration programs.

Hideo Itokawa
Hideo Itokawa with a model of the Pencil Rocket (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Failures are the Pillars of Success

Fifty years after the Pencil Rocket, the robotic spacecraft Hayabusa successfully landed on an asteroid. The asteroid was named after Itokawa in honor of his long list of achievements.

Nonetheless, significant setbacks for Japan's space exploration followed. Consider the failed launch of the H3 next-generation heavy-lift rocket. It followed the failed launch of the Epsilon-6 solid-fuel rocket. Undeniably, these failures slowed Japan's entry into the burgeoning space industry. It's easy to imagine what Dr Itokawa would say if he knew Japan's fine craftsmanship was in decline.

But Itokawa and his team were not always successful either. For instance, there was a time when their rocket fell into the nearby sea. When a reporter asked him, "Could that splash be caused by the rocket breaking up in mid-air?"

Itokawa befuddled the reporter by replying, "I'm sure it's a dolphin in the water."

All of this to say, failures are the pillars of success. We wish the H3 team a full comeback.

The H3 rocket is launched from the Tanegashima Space Center at 10:38 am on March 7, 2023, in Minamitane Town, Kagoshima Prefecture. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)


(To read the article in Japanese.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun

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