There may be an era in the future when a Japanese astronaut lands on the moon.
The government has decided that this country will take part in a U.S.-led project aimed at realizing manned exploration of the lunar surface in 2024. Under the concept of the project, a space station called “Gateway” will be constructed in orbit around the moon and will serve as a waypoint for astronauts on the way to landing on the moon.
In recent years, the possibility of water existing on the moon has grown, drawing attention from countries around the world. China succeeded in landing an unmanned lunar explorer on its own. Japan’s recent announcement that it will take part in the project may imply its intention not to be left behind in the international trend of aiming at exploring the moon.
In the history of lunar exploration, the United States, with its Apollo program that began in the 1960s, had 12 astronauts land on the lunar surface. Back then, there was a strong aspect of the United States vying with the Soviet Union for hegemony in outer space exploration.
After the Cold War, a new era of joint development came, in which Japan, the United States, European countries, Canada and even Russia took part. Astronauts from these countries can make long-term stays aboard the International Space Station (ISS), whose construction started in the 1990s. So far, seven Japanese astronauts have done so.
European countries are also expected to join the latest lunar exploration project. Japan’s participation is considered quite significant in maintaining and developing the framework of global partnership built up thus far.
What counts most is making use of the technologies cultivated by Japan, together with its research findings, for future lunar exploration.
The Kounotori series of unmanned cargo transporters has stably carried out transfers of goods to the ISS. The unmanned space probe Hayabusa-2 has technology to make a pinpoint touchdown on a targeted spot on an asteroid’s surface. These spacecraft can be expected to prove useful for the development of a moon-landing spaceship.
Meanwhile, aboard Kibo, the Japanese experimental module of the ISS, various research projects have been carried out, such as studying how human and animal bones and muscles are affected by zero gravity in outer space. This can be considered knowledge that can be used as a reference for prolonged stays in outer space.
Toyota Motor Corp. has launched the development of a lunar surface explorer, jointly with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Active utilization of private-sector capability is called for.
One challenge ahead is the international cost-sharing involved. There is a limit to Japan’s space development budget. The government should negotiate with other countries, including the United States, so that Japan will not end up shouldering excessive burdens.
In the United States, space development has been under the sway of the views of successive presidential administrations. The year 2024, considered the target year for manned exploration, falls in the final phase of what will be U.S. President Donald Trump’s second term if he is reelected. Given this, some aspects of the long-term outlook for the project are opaque.
Regardless of how the project may unfold, Japan, for its part, should make efforts to steadily gain know-how regarding the development of outer space.