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Entrepreneurs see hope in the heavens

An artist's rendering of the reusable spacecraft envisioned by Japanese startup PD AeroSpace. President Shuji Ogawa

TOKYO -- The commercial space business is undergoing something of a boom as entrepreneurs of all stripes flock to the fast-growing sector, drawn by the potential for sky-high profits.

     One person with big dreams for the business of space is Shuji Ogawa of Japan. As a child, Ogawa wanted to become an astronaut. Today, he is trying to channel that desire into a money-making business.

     In 2007, Ogawa quit his job at an autoparts maker to establish PD AeroSpace, a Nagoya startup dedicated to making commercial space travel a reality. The company, which has only four employees, is developing a low-cost spacecraft designed to carry seven people into space and return to Earth like a passenger jet.

     The company is already preparing to start test flights for the craft, which uses original engine technology. The envisioned "space tours," expected to be launched in 2020, will take passengers 100km into the heavens for a fee of 14 million yen ($113,141) per person.

     To keep costs down, the craft will be made of commercially available components, instead of costly custom-made parts, and designed for repeated trips.

     The company's goal is to keep launch costs below 100 million yen, or a hundredth of what it costs the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to launch a satellite-carrying H-IIA rocket.

A long way from Sputnik     

The space age began in 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the beach ball-size Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite. For decades, space development was driven by the national projects of major space powers such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

     But now it is entrepreneurs, not governments, who are leading the drive to put people into space.

     High-profile commercial space startups include SpaceX, a developer of reusable rockets founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla Motors, and Blue Origin, SpaceX's rival and headed by Jeff Bezos, CEO of

     Some Japanese-led space startups are also piquing the interest of investors. This year, Axelspace, a Tokyo-based developer of miniaturized satellites, raised 1.9 billion yen. Astroscale, a Singapore-based business founded by Nobu Okada, who worked for U.S. management consultancy McKinsey and the Japanese Ministry of Finance, received 900 million yen in fresh capital.

     PD AeroSpace, meanwhile, is receiving financial and technical support from such big Japanese corporate names as autoparts maker Aisin Seiki and travel agency H.I.S.

     Masayasu Ishida of U.S. consultancy A.T. Kearney said he sees parallels between the current space startup boom and the frenzied early years of the Internet economy. A space business event he presided over in October in Tokyo attracted some 500 businesspeople and investors.

     Japan is fertile ground for the industry, as the country boasts a rich pool of companies that possess sophisticated technologies with possible space applications.

     Among that group is Yuki Precision. With less than 30 employees and based out of the small city of Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, it may look unassuming on paper, but its high-precision metal-processing technology is prized by the aerospace makers -- both at home and abroad -- who buy its satellite parts.

     Yuki Precision's president, Masato Otsubo, sees a bright future for the space industry, predicting it "will keep growing fast."

    The potential applications go far beyond space tourism. Taiki, a farming and fishing town of about 6,000 people located on Hokkaido's vast Tokachi plain, is hoping to use space tech to revitalize its local economy, which is floundering amid a serious labor shortage due to an aging population.

     The municipal government envisions using satellites to enable automated operation of tractors for large-scale farming, as well as for analyzing sea temperatures to pinpoint good fishing grounds.

     With aerospace technologies becoming increasingly accessible for ordinary businesses and people, space is bound to become one of the next big business frontiers, attracting legions of business adventurers and innovators.


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