Japan Data

Japan’s Space Program Comes of Age

Science Technology

This is a busy time for Japan’s space program. The Japanese astronaut Yui Kimiya arrived at the International Space Station on July 23 for a scheduled stay of about five months; Japan’s space agency is preparing to launch an unmanned transfer craft to carry supplies to the ISS this month; and the nation has recently adopted a basic plan that provides for greatly expanded activity in space. Nippon.com takes a look at these and other Japanese happenings beyond Earth.

Ten Japanese in Space and Counting

Yui Kimiya became the tenth Japanese in space when he traveled to the International Space Station on July 23 aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. That was 25 years after Akiyama Toyohiro, a Tokyo Broadcasting System journalist, became the first Japanese in space. Akiyama, who also made the journey into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, spent a week in Russia’s Mir space station.

Thirty years before Yui’s spaceflight, Mohri Mamoru became the first Japanese crewmember candidate for the US space shuttle. Mohri subsequently served as a payload specialist on a 1992 flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and as a mission specialist on a 2000 flight of the same craft.

Meanwhile, on July 8 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced its development plans for the H3 launch vehicle. JAXA has earmarked ¥190 billion for developing the H3, a two-stage liquid-fuel rocket that will accommodate up to four solid-fuel boosters. JAXA’s plans call for the H3 to make its maiden flight in 2020. The H3 promises to reduce launch costs and lead times greatly, and JAXA is scheduling six flights a year.

“A Historic Turning Point”

Nations continue racing to outdo one another in space exploration and development, and China’s emergence as an important player has heightened the spirit of competition. The Chinese government has announced plans to build a large space station in the 2020s and, around the same time, to conduct manned exploration on the moon in cooperation with Russia. The Chinese have attained impressive momentum in their space program. They achieved their first manned space flight in 2003 and placed an unmanned probe on the surface of the moon in 2013.

The Japanese government adopted a new basic plan for space exploration and development on January 9, 2015. The plan covers the period to March 2025, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has hailed it as “a long-term and concrete plan that fully addresses [Japan’s] new national security policy—a historic turning point.”

To finance Japan’s expanded activity in space, the new plan calls for allocating about ¥5 trillion from public- and private-sector sources. Japan will upgrade its satellite systems for monitoring shipping and conducting other surveillance and will configure those systems to be adaptable as necessary to national security applications. Upgrading the satellite systems will include launching up to 45 satellites over the next 10 years.

Japan will also remain active in space exploration and research. The new plan provides for launching three medium-sized scientific satellites on the liquid-fuel H2A rocket and five small satellites on the smaller, solid-fuel Epsilon rocket over the next 10 years. It also provides for continuing study of the possibility of undertaking a manned space program.

About the International Space Station

Japan will continue to rely on US and Russian spacecraft to carry astronauts into space and bring them back safely at least until 2025. Whether it will continue to support the International Space Station is another issue. At the heart of that issue is money. The ISS is an immensely expensive undertaking, and its cost effectiveness is subject to increasingly rigorous scrutiny from the partners’ paymasters.

To be sure, the ISS is also an immensely appealing endeavor. It has met or exceeded the most optimistic expectations as a platform for space exploration and research. Operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency, the ISS orbits Earth about 16 times a day at a speed of some 27,700 kilometers per hour and at an altitude of about 400 kilometers. Its builders commenced the assembly work in space in 1999 and completed the remarkable facility in July 2011.

The planners of the ISS originally expected its useful life to last until around 2016, but officials at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration are now talking about possibly operating it until 2024. The Japanese government will decide by March 2017 whether and how long to continue supporting the project.

Japan had spent about ¥710 billion on the ISS by 2010, and it has spent a further ¥200 billion on the station in the past five years (including allocations to the end of 2015). In comparison, its partners in the project have made the following expenditures or allocations (unadjusted for inflation, yen equivalents): the United States ¥6,440 billion in the years to 2010 and ¥1,890 billion in the five years to 2015, Europe ¥460 billion and ¥250 billion, and Canada ¥140 billion and ¥25 billion.

Diplomatic friction is also clouding the outlook for continued operation of the ISS. The end of the space shuttle program in 2011 left the ISS project dependent on Soyuz spacecraft for transporting astronauts, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its confrontation with the West over Ukraine have compromised its standing in the eyes of the world. That is diminishing the enthusiasm among the other ISS partners for continuing the project.

Japanese Astronauts’ Rising Profile

Astronauts from Japan have conducted extensive scientific experimentation in the space environment aboard the space shuttle and, since 2008, aboard the ISS. Japanese have posted more person-hours in space than astronauts of any other nationality except US and Russian. In addition, Japan engineered the space station’s Kibō (Hope) laboratory module.

Japan’s Mukai Chiaki became the first Asian female in space when she served on a space shuttle crew in 1994, and she became the first Japanese to make multiple spaceflights when she served on a second space shuttle mission in 1998.

Yui, a graduate of Japan’s National Defense Academy, is a former air force fighter pilot who earned his astronaut’s certification in 2011. He will manipulate the robotic arm for managing the docking of the resupply craft that Japan will launch this month. Yui will also be responsible for releasing the S-CUBE, a small meteor observation satellite built at the Chiba Institute of Technology.

Japan’s Astronauts

  Year of spaceflight Notes
Akiyama Toyohiro 1990 First Japanese in space
Mohri Mamoru 1992, 2000 First Japanese on US space shuttle
Mukai Chiaki 1994, 1998 First Asian female in space
Doi Takao 1997, 2008 First Japanese to spend extended stay on ISS
Wakata Kōichi 1996, 2000 2009 2013–14 Japanese record holder for number of space trips (4)
Noguchi Sōichi 2005, 2009–10 First Japanese to spacewalk
Hoshide Akihiko 2008, 2012  
Yamazaki Naoko 2010  
Furukawa Satoshi 2011  
Yui Kimiya 2015  
Ōnishi Takuya 2016 (planned)  
Kanai Norishige Undetermined  

Next-Generation Rocket to Halve Launch Costs

JAXA has adopted simplified engine configuration for the H3 launch vehicle, which agency officials expect will help reduce the cost per launch to approximately ¥5 billion. That is about half the cost per launch with the H2A, JAXA’s present workhorse launch vehicle. The simplified engine configuration and other improvements will also greatly reduce the lead time per launch, which underlies JAXA’s plans for conducting a launch every two months.

Japan’s space agency is also pressing ahead with plans for lunar exploration. It tentatively aims to place an unmanned exploratory craft on the surface of the moon in 2018. The launch vehicle for the lunar landing would be the Epsilon rocket. JAXA officials suggest that they could develop, build, launch, and operate the lunar probe for between ¥10 billion and ¥15 billion.

Japan has demonstrated a capacity for carrying out highly challenging missions in space. It captured the imagination of the world in the first decade of the twenty-first century with the Hayabusa asteroid probe. Japan launched Hayabusa in 2003, and the craft landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned to Earth in 2010 with a sample of asteroid dust. JAXA’s scientists will be looking to build on that success with their lunar lander.

(Originally written in Japanese by Harano Jōji of Nippon.com and published on August 7, 2015. Banner photo:Yui Kimiya poses in the Cupola module of the International Space Station in a July 24 Twitter posting by the astronaut. Visible through the observation windows is Earth. © Jiji.)

Yui Kimiya space program International Space Station (ISS) Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H3 rocket asteroid explorer Hayabusa Epsilon launch vehicle