With the appointment of Koichi Wakata as commander of the International Space Station, many in Japan's space community eagerly anticipate seeing the first Japanese astronaut take the post.
A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a crew of astronauts including Wakata, 50, successfully docked at the ISS on Thursday. Wakata's appointment as ISS commander from March to May shows that his performance and Japan's contribution to both scientific-technological and financial aspects of such space activities have achieved international stature.
The next task Japan will face is how to predict the future of the ISS and what other space projects are on the horizon following the possible end of ISS operations.
Long time coming
"We finally got a chance to have a commander, making Japan one of the countries recognised as advanced in space projects," said Yoshiyuki Hasegawa, Executive Director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The predecessor of the ISS, Space Station Freedom, was proposed in 1984 by then US President Ronald Reagan. It was originally a project to counter the Soviet Union's space station Mir, but it achieved concrete form in the mid-1990s when the United States and Russia, both suffering from financial difficulty, were able to meet halfway after the collapse of Soviet Union.
Since astronauts started staying at the ISS in 2000, the post of commander has been filled by 30 Russians or Americans, one Canadian and one European.
Japan has sent eight astronauts for a total of 16 flights, logging a total of 734 days in space, according to JAXA, the most following the United States and Russia. Astronaut Kimiya Yui has been selected to be a crew member of an ISS expedition in 2015.
Japan has also made significant technical contributions, including the experimental module Kibo, and Konotori, an unmanned cargo vessel that successfully carried supplies to the ISS four times in a row.
Regarding financial support, the nation provided about ¥710 billion until 2010. Although the figure is far below the United States' ¥10 trillion, it is nearly the same as the total amount provided by Europe.
Some believe the appointment of a Japanese astronaut as commander has been a long time coming. "It's a bit late, considering how much Japan has contributed [to the ISS projects]," a JAXA official said.
"Through astronaut Wakata's efforts and our technical capabilities, we may see a second Japanese commander in the late 2010s," said Hasegawa with enthusiasm.
The ISS is about to reach a turning point 15 years after the launch of its first component. Although NASA plans to continue operating the ISS until 2020, there are no plans after that. In anticipation of the end of the ISS project, nations such as China, Russia, the United States and some in Europe are making moves to send human expeditions to the moon, asteroids and Mars.
After the US space shuttle programme ended in 2011 for financial and other reasons, Russia's Soyuz became the only spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS.
Russia has raised the charge for flights almost every year, with the current price tag at about ¥7 billion per person, about 50 per cent more than it was five years ago.
To maintain the ISS, which has grown in size, six or seven supply shipments are needed a year. It costs about ¥25 billion to send about six tons of supplies on the Konotori.
During his stay on the ISS, Wakata is tasked with such missions as launching an ultra-small satellite from Kibo, conducting a protein crystallization experiment, and taking high resolution images of the comet Ison, which is expected to reach its closest point to the sun later this month.
However, such experiments and observation activities rarely produce results that could lead to development in related industries.
The Basic Plan for Space Policy, compiled by the government in January, emphasizes industrial development through such projects as development of satellites for practical use, while requiring ongoing efforts to cut costs for manned space activities.
On the other hand, Russia is aiming to expand opportunities for development related to manned space activities. Though astronauts used to need to stay inside a Soyuz spacecraft for about two days from the launch until the craft was fully docked at the ISS, it now takes only six hours using a high-performance calculator introduced in March that makes it easier to control the craft.
This has helped reduce the burden on astronauts and hopefully will spur development of the private space travel market. Currently it costs more than ¥4 billion for one person to travel in space.
The fate of the ISS will depend on whether the major nations involved decide to focus on developing manned space activities or expand unmanned projects.
Nakajima is a correspondent in Washington