Japan’s Manned Space Development Pressed to Deal with Rapidly Changing Age

Science Technology

We have reached an age when humankind is attempting various new ventures in space. What will the future of manned space activities look like? A science journalist familiar with space development trends considers the path Japan should take.

From Two Nations to an International System

Space development is entering a time of rapid change worldwide. In this article, I look at the problems humankind faces in terms of manned and other space activities.

Space development began as a Cold War race between the United States and Soviet Union. This race ended with the Soviet collapse in 1991, after which Russia also came to participate in the International Space Station project carried out by the United States, Japan, and Europe. Thus, the age in which outer space was an area dominated by the US and Soviet superpowers gave way to an age of space as a frontier developed by four global players including Japan and Europe.

Construction of the ISS began with the launch of the Zarya, or Functional Cargo Block, by Russia in 1998. It was completed with the final mission of the US Space Shuttle in 2011. The ISS is a giant, 420-ton structure built in space about 400 kilometers above the earth. It consists of modules made by the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe, and boasts solar panels about 100 meters by 70 meters in size. Long-term stays on the ISS by astronauts began in 2000, and since that time the ISS has never been unmanned.

In the process of completing this station, humans have survived for long periods in a space environment and acquired the skills to do various types of work. Thanks to the ISS, we have built a bridgehead for human advancement into space.

Private Sector Participation

Prior to the completion of the ISS, and despite the change from a system dominated by two superpowers to a more international one, the mechanism for space activities remained one with nations as the main actors. Since the station’s completion, however, private enterprises have taken the stage as new players in manned space development, bringing about an era of change.

This shift came about with the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Following the disaster of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, US President George Bush decided to retire the Space Shuttle fleet after construction of the ISS was completed. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration started work on a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services to privatize the transport of cargo and people to the ISS.

Under the COTS program, commercial cargo transport to the ISS was conducted by Dragon spacecraft from Elon Musk’s company SpaceX and Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital ATK. In the near future they will also be joined by Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser minishuttle. Commercial human transport to the ISS will start in 2018 with the Boeing Company’s Starliner spacecraft and SpaceX’s Dragon V2.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is also planning a human space transportation service with its own rockets. The round trip to the low earth orbit where ISS travels is already becoming an area taken over by the private sector. And still more new businesses, such as Bigelow Aerospace, which will attempt to make new structures in space, are also starting up.

COTS has played a significant role in bringing about this age, and may be given as an example of a well-functioning partnership between government and the private sector.

China’s Remarkable Advances

China has also arrived on the scene as a new and powerful player. Its own Project 921 for manned spaceflight was started in 1992. China developed the Shenzhou manned spacecraft and in 2003 successfully completed its first manned spaceflight. Following the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States, it was the third country to send humans into space with its own rocket and spaceship. China later launched the Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 space laboratories, which successfully docked with the Shenzhou spaceship. The crews of Shenzhou 11 spent two weeks in Tiangong 2. In April 2017 they launched the Tianzhou 1 unmanned supply vessel, which succeeded in docking with Tiangong 2.

China will begin construction of its own complete space station in 2018, and plans to complete it around 2022. At the same time it is working on the development of the Long March 9 superheavy carrier rocket, aiming for its own manned moon landing in the first half of the 2030s.

With China’s entry to the field, as well as the increased space activity by private companies, it is clear that the world of manned space activities is growing rapidly. And this is likely to accelerate still more once additional players like India and Middle Eastern oil-producing nations make their way into orbit.

Accelerating Commercial Use of Space

Extrapolating from the present situation as described above, we can predict considerable changes in the space scene 10 years from now.

It has been decided that the ISS will operate until 2024. Judging from its service life, it should be possible to operate the station for perhaps four years longer, but I believe that the current plan of operation—based on an agreement concluded by the participating nations—will probably end on schedule. After that it will likely be operated in some form with significant participation by private companies. In fact NASA is moving ahead in discussions with firms toward this end. And the private sector may also take on the task of building entirely new space stations.

A decade from now a Chinese space station will also be in operation, making it an age when several structures capable of supporting human life are orbiting the earth. And many of the services conducted in association with those structures will likely be conducted by corporations. The space policy of the administration of US President Donald Trump has yet to be announced, but commercial use of outer space seems set to accelerate in the manned space field as well.

In 10 years humans will probably again have restarted activities on the surface of the moon. The rough path from there to the construction of a permanent moon base will probably be development of rockets and spacecraft capable of traveling freely between points in outer space, along with the establishment of life-support, health-management, and other technology allowing humans to survive for long periods in deep space (defined as space at least 2 million kilometers from the earth) with the ISS as a proving ground. Energy and material supply from the Earth will be difficult, so technology to procure what is needed on the moon’s surface will be necessary. Accompanying this should be advances in plans for manned flight to Mars.

Such space activities in regions beyond the orbit of the ISS would be difficult for one country to sustain, and will be done instead through international cooperation. Currently, an assembly called the International Space Exploration Forum, with participation by representatives of a number of national governments, is holding talks aimed at the creation of such a network. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group, with participation by 15 world space agencies, is investigating space-development technology and preparing a road map for the future. From the results of those efforts, ISECG plans to announce a third blueprint for space exploration this fall.

China is participating in ISEF and actively making proposals. The China National Space Administration is also participating in ISECG. However, it is not yet clear what kind of relationship will exist between China’s own manned moon exploration plan and international frameworks.

A Lack of Japanese Vision

Preparations must be started now for this age that is just 10 years in the future. Space development is becoming more frenetic today around the world, and the private sector is playing a much more energetic role. Looking at Japan, on the other hand, one cannot help but conclude that it is starting late in both the areas of commercial services in orbit and in international space exploration.

Japan’s basic space plan advocates “industrial promotion,” but essentially is tilted toward the satellite-launching business and lacks a strategy for nurturing companies that can provide commercial services in orbit. In the area of international space exploration, Japan has still made no specific efforts despite the fact that the country will host an ISEF meeting in March 2018. The December 2015 revision of the Basic Plan for Space Policy includes a specific schedule for the next decade or so in working to achieve the nation’s goals in space. Amazingly, the schedule for international manned space exploration is completely blank after the year 2018.(*1)

The field of manned commercial services in orbit will see explosive growth. Many American companies, viewing outer space as the next promising frontier after the Internet, are actively entering the market. Japan also needs to make urgent efforts. In international space exploration, Japan should contribute to humankind by providing the advanced technology in its possession.

For Japan, manned space development holds significant meaning in terms of diplomacy and security policy in the Asian region, and must be actively advanced. For that, what the nation needs most is a clear vision of a future—one that can be pictured by anyone—in which Japan is active in space developments both in orbit and on the moon’s surface.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 2, 2017. Banner photo: The H-II Transfer Vehicle Kōnotori 6 arrives at the ISS and successfully docks. © NASA/Best Image/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ The latest revision of the plan is available (in Japanese only) at http://www8.cao.go.jp/space/plan/plan2/kaitei_fy27/kaitei_fy27.pdf. The schedule in question is at the top of page 29.—Ed.