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Japan should leverage its experience to advance manned space development

  • September 6, 2019
  • , NIKKEI Business Daily , p. 6
  • JMH Translation

By Shoji Kodama


This year marks the 10th anniversary of the completion of the Japanese experiment module “Kibo” on the International Space Station (ISS). As Japan’s first manned space facility, Kibo has made a variety of contributions, but the environment surrounding space development and the ISS is undergoing a sea change. How will Japan leverage the experience it gained from Kibo to advance space development?


Japan, Europe, and Canada answered the U.S.’s call and announced their participation in the ISS in 1985. In order to keep pace with the construction of Kibo, Koichi Wakata, Japan’s first astronaut who had an extended stay aboard the ISS in 2009. Seven Japanese astronauts have stayed on the ISS so far.


Japan gained a wide range of experiences in manned space development through the construction of Kibo. This has nurtured not only astronauts but also flight controllers on the ground. Japan has also accumulated expertise in the transport of goods by developing and operating the Kounotori unmanned cargo transporter. These achievements will definitely help Japan’s space development in the future.


But space development has changed significantly. It used to be led by such superpowers as the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. Today, there is more and more commercial use of space near the earth, where the ISS is orbiting, and private companies are active players there. Also, private companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, are planning to launch manned spaceships later this year. Japan needs to make a bold decision on the extent to which it will entrust manned space development to the private sector.


Further, political standoffs between the U.S. and China and between the U.S. and Russia are intensifying, creating an environment which makes the ISS and other forms of international cooperation difficult. The ISS project initially started with the participation of only Western nations. But Russia was included in the project following the end of the Cold War, which was triggered by the collapse of former Soviet Union in 1991. The construction of the ISS began in 1998, and the first module of the ISS launched was Russian. In a sense, it can be said that the ISS is a result of the end of the Cold War.


Russia has expressed its intention to join the ISS member nations in constructing the “Gateway” moon-orbiting space station. A further escalation in hostilities between Washington and Moscow could affect the ISS members’ cooperation with Russia in the Gateway project, however.


During the Cold War era, the U.S. and former Soviet Union injected money in space development, staking their reputations. Today, however, the U.S. cannot do this. The U.S. could downsize the Gateway project or ask participating nations to provide more funding. Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of Japan’s Space Policy Committee, says, “It’s important for Japan to be part of the Gateway framework.” But Japan should not just follow the U.S. Rather, it needs to decide on the goal of manned space development and how far it will cooperate with the U.S. (Abridged)

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