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Nine World-Firsts Achieved Through Great Leadership and Teamwork
—Hayabusa2 project managers tell their story


On December 6, 2020, Hayabusa2 successfully delivered a capsule containing a sample of the asteroid Ryugu to Earth, before heading out on its next mission, scheduled to take 11 years. The project successfully achieved nine world-firsts, and was led by Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda, a professor at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The NEC project manager was Takeshi Ohshima. How did these two leaders unite more than 600 members to make this difficult project a success? The two take a look back at their long struggle.

Yuichi Tsuda
Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency / Project Manager, Hayabusa2 Project Team

Takeshi Ohshima
Project Director,
NEC Space Systems Division

Team unity is the key to success

—How did you feel when you successfully obtained the sample from the asteroid Ryugu?

Tsuda: Honestly, I was relieved from the bottom of my heart. Hayabusa2 was a difficult mission, and if anything had gone wrong along the way, it would have failed. Ever since being appointed project manager, I was constantly anxious about whether we would be able to complete the mission successfully. So it was a huge weight off my shoulders.

Ohshima: The main mission of this project was to deliver samples from Ryugu to scientists back on Earth. The samples were collected successfully, but if we couldn't get the samples back to Earth, the whole mission would have been for nothing. I'm just so pleased that Hayabusa2 returned to Earth safely.

—Hayabusa2 experienced some minor setbacks during the project. Could you go into a bit more detail about some of those problems?

Tsuda: During the first touchdown (landing) on Ryugu, Hayabusa2 malfunctioned, and the time it took to fix the problem delayed the actual descent by five hours. To recover from this delay, the landing had to be made at a speed somewhat higher than initially intended, but the touchdown was still successful. That was possible because we had predicted and carefully prepared for these sorts of problems.

Ohshima: The first touchdown showed us that the surface of Ryugu is much more fragile than we thought. The rocks on the asteroid's surface were crushed, and this threw up a lot of dust which damaged Hayabusa2's sensors. That was one of many other problems we encountered.

Tsuda: Because of that, we ended up having to discuss whether or not we should go ahead with the second planned touchdown. My stance as the project manager was to say that we should go ahead until the last possible minute, and if it turned out to be too difficult, make a calm judgement to stop. It's all too easy to give up straight away. But we can't just abandon our responsibility toward developing space science. That's what I thought anyway.
So we delayed the plan by two weeks and discussed the matter with NEC, and in the end, we came to the decision to go ahead with the landing, confident that we were technically and operationally capable of touching down with greater accuracy than the first attempt.

Ohshima: In actual fact, the second touchdown was pretty much perfect. It was a fantastic result.

—Please tell us what factors helped you to overcome the problems.

Ohshima: I think a big factor was that there were no boundaries between the team members of JAXA and us here at NEC. We were candid when voicing our opinions, and listened closely to each other. As a result, I think we became a team that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Tsuda: Yes, that's exactly right. We all said what we needed to without restraint, and although the discussions sometimes got a bit heated, in the end, we all shared the same aim: completing the mission successfully. I think that unity was the key to overcome the issues we faced.

The foundation of a new leap for mankind

—Hayabusa2 achieved nine world-firsts. Can you tell us more about them?

Tsuda: To give a few examples, there was the deployment of four mobile asteroid surface scout rovers to carry out scientific observations; there was the successful touchdown at two points on the same celestial body; and there was the creation of artificial craters on an asteroid, with the entire process observed, both before and after the craters were created. In particular, the touchdowns were carried out with only extremely small measurement errors: 1 m from the target point for the first touchdown and 60 cm for the second. I'd say that's about as accurate as it gets on an object that's 300 million kilometers away. In addition, it was the first time samples have been successfully collected from a C-type asteroid* and the first-ever collection of samples that contain extra-terrestrial gas.

*An asteroid mainly made up of carbon-based substances

—What enabled you to achieve such great results?

Ohshima: We carefully reviewed the mission processes one by one, and selected the methods with the highest chance of success. We conducted thorough simulations. The team members also trained thoroughly and extensively. I think those were the main reasons for the success.

Tsuda: We were able to improve our technology after we landed on Ryugu. I believe that working together with NEC on a range of jobs such as rewriting programs and changing landing procedures, combined with our flexibility in responding to situations in space in real time, helped us to achieve these world-firsts.

—What effect will the success of this mission have on future space development and deep-space exploration?

Tsuda: I think successfully completing two difficult sample return missions with Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 has shown the world how trustworthy Japan's deep-space exploration technology is. You could say that sample return has become a specialty of Japan. There are more than a million identified asteroids in the solar system alone, many of which are difficult to reach. I think the two Hayabusa projects has created a solid foundation for future attempts to access such asteroids.

Ohshima: In the field of space development, each achievement becomes a stepping stone for the next advancement. Technologies such as round-trip navigation between the Earth and asteroids and sample collection will be considered commonplace in the future, due to the success of Hayabusa2. I hope we have helped to create a foothold for the next leap forward for mankind.

The role of the leader is to make decisions

—Mr. Tsuda, you took over the role of project manager for Hayabusa2 from your predecessor, Hitoshi Kuninaka, in April 2015 following the successful launch. What kind of team were you looking to create when you took on the role of project manager?

Tsuda: I first started working for the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science a month before the launch of the first Hayabusa. I was still new when working on the first Hayabusa project, and I thought all of the people working there were like “superman”. I remember being astonished that space projects were being pushed forward by such amazing people. I think their ability is what enabled us to successfully complete the mission despite a number of significant problems.
However, I thought that Hayabusa2 was the type of project where problems should be dealt with through the power of teamwork, rather than relying on “superman” capabilities. We had to stay on the asteroid a lot longer than ever before, so there was a higher chance of problems occurring. Communicating effectively, with each member demonstrating their area of expertise in responding to all kinds of situations collectively. That was the team I envisioned.

—Among the more than 600 project members, there were many young people.

Tsuda: Young people perform very well with the right motivation. One of my roles was to get the team motivated. Training in operating the probe, writing commands by themselves, taking direct control of the probe — to me, giving people these kinds of opportunities to take on responsibility is be the best way to motivate them. During the actual mission, our younger members got involved with these types of jobs, which led to increased morale across the team. For me, motivating the younger members and creating a good team are one and the same thing.

—Please tell us more about your work as a project manager on the NEC side of the project.

Ohshima: I think there were about 300 members on the NEC side of the project, including personnel working on the inspection and manufacturing of equipment and infrastructure. For the core system members, the project advanced by each of them handling their responsibilities independently, rather than by me giving orders from on high. That's the sort of team we were. My role was to allow all members to work to 100% of their ability, and to create an environment where people could shine. I think that policy worked quite well. It was a great team, where everyone worked enthusiastically. In the first place, there has always been a culture at JAXA in which we all share our opinions and create teams by combining everyone's strengths. I think that kind of culture now also extends to NEC.

—It sounds like you had a shared vision of team building. Now that the project is complete, could you tell us what you think is required of a leader?

Tsuda: In this project, the project manager and other members were the same position, in that nobody knew how we were going to land on Ryugu. So, rather than just taking the lead and pulling everyone along behind me, I thought it would be better to combine the brainpower of all 600 people, and use them to work out the right approach.

—That's the team that you mentioned earlier?

Tsuda: That's right. So to achieve this approach, I thought it was important that everyone was able to share their thoughts and make suggestions, regardless of their position. I also wanted to clearly show that, as the project manager, I would take responsibility for any proposals, even if they failed. That's the kind of leadership that was required for this project at least. We had a lot of good ideas as a result of this approach.

Ohshima: I think the role of a leader is to make decisions. Of course it's possible to make wrong decisions, but with this sort of project, in many cases the worst thing you can do is to avoid making a decision. Make a decision, and make it as quickly as possible, whatever the situation. I think that's the main role of a leader.

—How do you intend to use your leadership experience to train the next generation and pass on your technological knowledge?

Ohshima: I think the most important thing is passing on experience by actually working together. At the end of the day, people develop by doing actual work.

Tsuda: I was 39 years old when I was appointed project manager. If there's one thing I would want to say to people, it's that project managers should not be removed from the rest of the team. I was able to work as a project manager despite not being a veteran with decades of experience, and I think that during this project, I was able to show that to people by setting an example of what to do, or in some cases what not to do. So I'll be happy if more people look to me for reassurance and to gain confidence, and maybe even consider having a go at being a project manager themselves.

Expanding the frontiers of human knowledge

—During the project, what sort of relationship did you two have with each other?

Tsuda: I had been watching Ohshima's hard work ever since the first Hayabusa project. To me, he's a huge figure in space development, and I have great respect for him professionally. I was very happy when I heard that Ohshima would be the Hayabusa2 project manager at NEC, and I was able to learn a lot from him throughout the project.

Ohshima: I think Tsuda is an excellent project manager. He kept a close eye on the whole mission, including the fine details, and was very reliable when personally leading the team during the actual mission. Earlier, Tsuda mentioned that the members of the first project felt like superheroes, but I think that to the current young team members, Tsuda is the superhero.

Tsuda: No, no, that's not true at all. There were times when I just wished I could get away from it all. At times like that I often called Ohshima, but he always managed to mention how stressed he was feeling first. To say the truth, I just wanted him to make ME feel better! (laughs)

Ohshima: Because I work on the manufacturing side, I rarely have the luxury of saying that everything is fine (smiles). I'm always thinking about risks.

—How will both of you be involved in space development and deep space exploration going forward?

Ohshima: Currently I'm still working on a variety of projects. If possible, though, I'd like to continue working to expand the frontiers of human knowledge for as long as I can. I've always loved astronomy and space. I want to make my work with space my life's work, and to continue contributing to space development even after I finish working as a company employee. That's what I hope.

Tsuda: Hayabusa2 has delivered the capsule to Earth, and will now head back out to deep space to continue its extended mission. The mission is expected to last for 11 years. As long as that's ongoing, I'll be involved with Hayabusa2 in some way, shape, or form.
Of course, Hayabusa2 is just one of a number of deep-space exploration projects planned for the future, and so far we've only made return journeys from asteroids between Earth and Mars. A big goal of ours is to visit celestial bodies farther than Mars, such as Jupiter and Saturn. I'd like to help find a way to achieve that.

—Finally, could you please tell us your expectations for NEC as a space development partner?

Tsuda: NEC is the only system manufacturer in the world to have successfully delivered a sample from an asteroid to Earth, and is well positioned to use its own capabilities to expand the boundaries of deep space exploration. Of course, it is in the difficult position of having other companies trying to catch up with it, but there's no doubt that it has an advantage. I would like to see NEC continue to lead Japanese space development in the private sector.

Hayabusa2 achieved nine world firsts

  1. Mobile activity of exploration robots on small body.
  2. Multiple robots deployment on small body.
  3. 60cm-accuracy landing and sampling.
  4. Artificial crater forming and observation of impact process.
  5. Multiple landing on extra-terrestrial planet.
  6. Access to subsurface material.
  7. Smallest-object constellation around extra-terrestrial planet.
  8. Collected samples from a C-type asteroid.
  9. Collected an extraterrestrial gas sample.

Published: March 5, 2021

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