Keep using ISS to develop lunar explorations technology

Extending the operation of the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits 400 kilometers above the Earth, is under consideration. For humans to hone their skills to explore the moon and Mars, it is realistic to use existing facilities.

The ISS is jointly operated by countries including Japan, the United States, some European states and Russia. Construction of the ISS began in 1998 and was completed in 2011. It has already been decided that the spacecraft will continue to operate through 2024, but the plan for what happens afterward is still uncertain.

With space development entering a new era in which private companies are taking the lead, the U.S. government hopes to shift the focus of its activities to exploration of the moon and Mars. Maintaining the ISS in tandem will be a financial burden, thus prompting a discussion over whether to continue operating it.

Under such circumstances, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has announced a new plan to extend the operation by six years and use the ISS through 2030. Despite the fact that the facility is conspicuously aging, there are not considered to be any major problems with its maintenance.

Japan has announced its participation in the U.S.-led Artemis program for manned exploration of the lunar surface. The circumstances in Japan are the same as in the United States, and the Japanese government will be required to decide whether to agree with the plan to extend operation of the ISS.

Japan has so far had seven Japanese astronauts undertake long-term stays in the ISS and has enhanced its manned space technology. It is only natural to think that Japan will continue to participate as a core member.

After the ISS operation is extended, a pressing task will be to reduce the ISS-related annual expenses, for which Japan alone bears tens of billions of yen, and to deliberate on how to secure a budget for lunar exploration.

Close attention should be paid to Russia’s movements. If the conflict between the United States and Russia over the situation in Ukraine intensifies, Moscow could withdraw from the plan to extend operation of the ISS.

The ISS has long been regarded as a symbol of international cooperation. Space development based on peaceful international rules is desired in the future, too. The hope is that Russia will make a prudent judgment.

In recent years, China has made significant inroads into space development. It has launched its own space station and has its own astronauts stationed there. If the ISS is discontinued, the Chinese station could become the only facility in space, leaving Japan with no place to maintain its technology.

Compared to the ISS, the moon is located much farther from Earth. Full preparation is needed to get lunar exploration into full swing, and there may be delays in executing the program. Until then, it is necessary to save the ISS as a base for testing new technologies for lunar exploration and nurturing private companies.

New astronauts currently being recruited by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are expected to become the first Japanese to land on the moon. Continued use of the ISS will be a step toward realizing this goal.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 13, 2022.