Japanese Astronauts Landed Tickets to Moon in Win-win Deal; U.S. to Get Lunar Cruiser, Ally against China

Courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.
A rendering of the lunar cruiser currently being developed by Toyota Motor Corp. and others

TOKYO/WASHINGTON — The recent Japan-U.S. agreement to send two Japanese astronauts to the moon as part of the U.S.-led Artemis lunar exploration program grew out of a common interest, with the United States hoping to counter China by cooperating with multiple countries and Japan seeking a leading position in space exploration.

However, Japan will have to make its fair share of contributions and build up its own technologies.

2nd country on moon

“America no longer will walk on the moon alone,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson at a press conference on April 10 in Washington. He added that his country and Japan would “realize the shared goal for Japanese and American astronauts to, together, explore the moon.”

Nelson, sitting next to Japan’s Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Masahito Moriyama, called for solidarity between the two countries.

Under the new agreement, Japan aims to have the first Japanese astronaut land on the moon as early as 2028 and the second in 2032. They will be sent to the moon via the Gateway manned space station around the moon, which the United States and its partners plan to construct. Since Japan does not have its own spaceship, the Japanese astronauts will use U.S. spacecraft to travel between the Earth and the moon.

This could make Japan the second country to land its astronauts on the lunar surface. Moriyama stressed the significance of the deal. “This is the first agreement the United States has made with a foreign partner about landing on the moon,” he said.

Pit stop to Mars

In recent years, the moon has grown increasingly important due to the possibility of finding water, minerals and other resources there that would allow humans to stay long-term. It has also drawn attention as a possible pit stop on the way to Mars and beyond.

The United States landed the first humans on the moon through its Apollo program about 50 years ago as it struggled for hegemony with the Soviet Union. With the new Artemis program, the United States has focused on international cooperation as it works to keep ahead of China.

The International Space Station, which hovers about 400 kilometers above the surface of the Earth and is run by Japan, the United States, Russia, Europe and Canada, will cease operations in 2030. In the future, the front line of state-led space exploration will be on the moon. China, for its part, is rapidly developing as a space power and aims to have its astronauts on the moon by 2030.

For the United States to lead in space exploration amid such competition, it will need allies. Japan, Europe and Canada will continue to participate in the Artemis program once the ISS is retired. The United States has drawn up a strategy to strengthen its ties with its capable ally Japan and extend its lead in the field.

Cooperation between the two countries will also help Japan take a leading position in space exploration.

The deciding factor for the agreement was the lunar cruiser being developed by Toyota Motor Corp. and others. This high-performance exploration vehicle is said to cost several hundreds of billions of yen. Astronauts would not need to wear spacesuits inside the vehicle and would be able to stay on the moon for up to a month. Development and delivery of the lunar cruiser proved a hefty bargaining chip in negotiations and scored Japan its tickets to the moon.

A more independent Japan

The Japan-U.S. agreement also states that more Japanese astronauts might land on the moon if Japan can make more contributions. To do so, Japan will have to take advantage of its advanced technology for unmanned space exploration, such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s SLIM lunar probe, which was successfully landed on the moon in January.

In March, NASA selected the Lunar Surface Dielectric Analyzer, an instrument developed by the University of Tokyo and others to measure the dielectric properties of the lunar surface, as one of the devices to be used on the moon.

“To increase Japan’s independence, it is important to improve our own technologies,” said Hideaki Miyamoto, a professor of space resources at the University of Tokyo who led development of the instrument.

Training and development of astronauts will also be essential. With an eye on lunar exploration, JAXA chose two new astronaut candidates, Ayu Yoneda, 29, and Makoto Suwa, 47, in 2023. There will soon be seven active astronauts.

No decision has been made yet for how to select who will land on the moon. Missions there will include building a base and searching for usable resources, and astronauts will need a wide range of knowledge and experience. This raises the question of how JAXA astronauts will get training in space once the ISS is retired.

“Compared to the ISS, there will be a wider range of missions [on the moon], and astronauts will need training focused on the Artemis program,” said Nobuaki Minato, professor of space and aviation management at Ritsumeikan University.

The Artemis program aims to achieve sustainable lunar exploration, and to land on Mars in the 2030s. The program’s name and details were unveiled in 2019 under the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump. In Greek mythology, Artemis is the goddess of the moon and the twin sister of the sun god Apollo.