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Editorial: We need vision for future space development program

  • December 15, 2016
  • , Sankei , p. 2
  • JMH Translation

Japan’s cargo spaceship “Kounotori-6” successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS).


Although Japan, the U.S. and Russia are to take turns in performing missions to deliver supplies to the ISS, American and Russian attempts since 2014 have been a series of failures. Most recently, on Dec. 1, the Russian supply ship “Progress” crashed right after liftoff.


Japan’s Kounotori is the only cargo ship with an unbroken record of successful deliveries. The lithium-ion batteries that the Kounotori-6 shipped to the ISS this time will serve as the station’s main power source. Japan’s presence has risen to where the U.S. and Russia, the superpowers in space development, depend on its involvement.


The ISS will be in operation until 2024. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch  Kounotori-9, the last ship of current type, in 2019, to be followed by a new type of spacecraft that would be built to reduce costs.


There is no arguing that cost reduction is very important. However, at a time when the global interest is turning to post-ISS projects, such as a manned Mars exploration project put forward by the U.S., Japan also needs to establish a long-term vision for future space programs.


Post-ISS international space development will be centered on space station projects on Mars or the Moon. The most realistic strategy for Japan is to take part in an international project, as it did in the ISS program.


A round-trip manned exploration project to Mars would take as long as two to three years. This would require a larger spaceship for the provision of habitable space.


Kounotori has a large payload to carry abundant supplies, and when moored to the ISS, it allows astronauts to carry out activities inside. With additional improvements to this technology, Japan may become able to play a bigger role in near-future projects that involve manned space activities.


Potential for Kounotori to be turned into a manned spacecraft or into a spaceship suitable for round trips has been under consideration from the initial stage of its research and development. Nevertheless, the only decision made this time was to reduce the cost. The government’s indecision on the general direction of Japan’s space development programs has forced researchers and engineers to shelve their visions for the future.


It is, of course, understandable that cost is a big factor in a commercial enterprise for launching satellites. But there is more to space development than cost effectiveness.


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