By former Ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki
Although Japan possesses the technology for space exploration, it would be financially unrealistic for it to undertake manned exploration alone. Japan needs to participate in international frameworks for multilateral cooperation in space, such as the International Space Station (ISS).
The U.S. put forth a plan for manned flights to Mars during the Obama administration. China, India, and other newly emerging nations are also embarking on their own rocket development and have conducted their own manned exploration missions. The international framework for cooperation in space has been obscured in recent years.
However, following the launch of the Trump administration, NASA announced its Deep Space Gateway (DSG) concept last spring. Russia indicated its cooperation with this project last September. Shortly after that, Vice President Mike Pence declared that the U.S. will “send astronauts back to the moon.” This changed the situation dramatically.
Japan and the U.S. agreed at a summit meeting last November to promote space exploration. The experts’ panel under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology that I chair affirmed that it is important to take advantage of this latest trend. We compiled a report urging the government to consider manned lunar exploration through participation in the DSG.
Scientific research is not the only purpose of manned lunar exploration. Since the moon is humankind’s stepping stone to the distant space beyond, this project will also study the impact of lunar living on the human body, search for fuel resources on the moon, and so forth. It is not rational to aim at manned exploration of other celestial bodies without exploring the moon, so it is unlikely that the U.S.’s policy will change even if there is a change of administration.
Similar to Portugal’s and Spain’s quest for the New World during the Age of Discovery, the trend of space exploration by various nations is unstoppable. If Japan misses the bus, it will not be able to participate in the rule-making when a new framework is established, and it will also be extremely difficult to participate belatedly. Japan would be excluded from making important decisions pertaining to space, and China might get involved.
There are times when speed is crucial in diplomacy. We must not create a situation where Japan will later regret that it didn’t get involved at an early stage. However, thorough discussions must be held on the enormous amount of funding required. Japan’s annual budget for the ISS is approximately 40 billion yen. It would probably be appropriate to stay within this budget.
Foreign leaders view their relations with Japan based on specific issues relating to bilateral security, economic, and other ties as well as joint cooperation projects. International cooperation in space will bring great diplomatic advantages.
The International Space Exploration Forum will be held in Tokyo in March. The participating nations will discuss basic principles in space development, resources utilization, and other areas for the future. Events targeting students and young people interested in space will also be held. Japan as the host country should exercise leadership and help shape the trend of international space exploration for the future.