What should be Japan’s strategy for human space exploration?

Taking part in the lunar Gateway could give Japan benefits from foreign policy to space commercialization, and even allow it to become the second nation to have its astronauts walk on the Moon. (credit: NASA)





In Space Policy Directive-1, NASA invited international partners to join its space exploration plans. Although this campaign is open for all countries with interests, construction of the lunar Gateway will be a role primarily for ISS partners.

Japan, the country which has the second biggest contributions to ISS within western allies, is also considering participation to this US campaign. This article offers a brief recommendation for Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Japan (MEXT), who is responsible for promoting human space exploration policy in the country. This includes three perspectives for consideration, including national security, space industry, and science and technology.

National security

According to studies by the author, including interviews with NASA, DOD, and other space professionals in Washington, there are no national security rationales for human space exploration currently in US.

On the other hand, from the history of US space policy, it is obvious that human space exploration has been considered as one of the strategic initiatives of US national security. Also, experiences from international cooperation of ISS indicates that it could be a good channel to maintain communications with and better understand Russia, the country that has strained relationships with western allies.

From these perspectives, it would be strategic for Japan to establish a cooperative structure under US leadership with countries who have strained relationships with Japan. Binding these countries under US leadership seems to help maintain and protect the international order based on universal values and rules. Besides this, it would contribute to construct such partnerships if Japan would engage countries with which has good relationships, such as ASEAN nations, the ,Middle East, Australia and India, to participate in US-led human space exploration.

Space industry

NASA facilitates space industries in lunar-exploration campaign through initiatives such as Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In CLPS, NASA selected nine companies that have various objectives, plans, or capabilities for lunar landers in order to procure services needed to explore the Moon and the beyond. Thus, NASA recognizes the space industry as one of the main actors in deep space exploration.

The author argued that the current Japan’s initiative to foster NewSpace should be modified a bit and proposed some efforts should be taken by the government in the previous article appeared in Space Review (see “How should Japan’s space agency foster NewSpace?”, The Space Review, January 7, 2019).

Japanese space policy is unique because it began only as science and technology policy. However, space has already become a field of commerce, so MEXT should change its recognition of space from one focused on developing new technology, mainly conducted by government, to commerce. This change enables MEXT to make JAXA end projects that can be done by industries and make its priority instead cutting-edge science and technology projects that are more challenging.

Science and technology

NASA has proposed that the construction of Gateway will be largely done by countries who are ISS partners. As the second largest country of western allies in ISS, Japan should maintain its role in order to strengthen its influence. In this context, Japan should have a role of developing components that are critical to operate the Gateway. The advisory council of MEXT already identified the characteristics of technologies in which to devote investment in December 2017. In consistency with this recommendation, MEXT and JAXA should negotiate with NASA to obtain the right role in constructing Gateway.

Also, it is an important task domestically to make academia in space science and the human space exploration department of JAXA work more closely together. In order to strengthen synergy within two vectors such as robotic and human space exploration, MEXT should reform the structure of JAXA’s budget. Currently, the budget for space science and human spaceflight provided by JAXA are in a relationship of trade-offs. If human space exploration requires more funding, academia recognizes that the budget for other areas, including space science, are forced to decrease. This results in a neglect by academia to human space exploration. Such tradeoffs are not present within NASA’s budget, and NASA has made effortes to strengthen cooperation between them, although a confrontation between human exploration and robotic science has existed for a long time. Given that model, Japan should reconstruct its budget structure and develop an integrated national strategy for space exploration, including both robotic and human missions.

Through efforts in a US-led space exploration campaign, why shouldn’t Japan have an ambitious goal such as to be the second nation to land astronauts on the Moon? If Japan could be the second, national pride would be enhanced eternally. The author considers that this would be the largest and most priceless fruit of a human space exploration policy.


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