Japan's astronauts built solid reputation

Japan's astronauts built solid reputation
PHOTO: Reuters

It was 1985 when Mamoru Mori, now 67, was chosen as an astronaut candidate by the then National Space Development Agency of Japan (now the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). Over the following three decades, Japan's manned space development has changed significantly.

"I don't think the expression 'manned space development' was used in Japan at that time," said Chiaki Mukai, 63, a former astronaut currently serving as vice president of the Tokyo University of Science. Japanese personnel were regarded as "guests" who boarded the space shuttle to conduct experiments by paying usage fees to the United States.

Mukai demonstrated her competence as a researcher in the United States, which helped her follow Mori aboard the space shuttle as an astronaut. After Japan took part in International Space Station missions, Koichi Wakata became a space shuttle crew member involved not only in experiments but also in the operation of the space shuttle in 1996. Since then, Japan has expanded its activities in space and increased the number of its astronauts at a healthy pace.

When the construction of Japan's experiment module Kibo began in 2008, JAXA recruited astronauts from among the public for the first time in 10 years and chose three candidates. One of them was Kimiya Yui. Japanese astronauts' combined time in space now exceeds 900 days, the third most following Russia and the United States.

Extending the ISS's lifespan through 2024 is being discussed internationally. However, some space development experts in Japan question the annual expenditure of 35 billion yen (S$552 million) to 40 billion yen for the project, so the government has not clarified whether it will join the ISS extension plan. The situation is even more unclear when it comes to the "post-ISS era."

As its next goal for space development, the United States aims for manned exploration of Mars, and has been promoting the development of the new spacecraft Orion. Europe supports this plan, and has also been conducting joint experiments with Russia and China in preparation for a long-term stay in space.

Japan has failed to draw up concrete policies for manned space development such as an exploration of Mars, which is expected to require an enormous amount of money.

"To survive international competition for manned space development, Japan needs to keep demonstrating its presence with its unique technologies and ideas," said Daido University President Akira Sawaoka, who is specialised in space exploration strategy.

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