Blast-Off For Profits

A new roster of space racers line up to launch the world's satellites

As it thundered into space last week, the tall, slender rocket looked like hundreds of satellite boosters launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Despite a drizzling rain, the blast-off put a marine observation satellite into orbit without a hitch. The launch pad, though, was not in California or Florida. It was on Tanegashima Island, and the rocket bore on its side, in prominent black letters, a single word: NIPPON.

Japan has joined a host of other nations that are striving to enter a fiercely competitive new space race. After the U.S. shuttle program was grounded last year by the...

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