Japan confirms it has lunar ambitions

An artist's concept shows a Japanese moon base, surrounded by equipment.
An artist's concept shows a Japanese moon base, surrounded by equipment.JAXA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joining a swelling group of countries shooting for the moon, Japan is considering a plan to establish an inhabited lunar base by 2025, officials said Tuesday.

Officials at Japan’s space agency, JAXA, confirmed that the mission was under consideration, but said the plan is still being fleshed out and has yet to be formally accepted. A report outlining the plan is expected to be submitted to the government later this month or in early April.

“The building of a manned moon base is part of our long-term plan, looking to about 20 years from now,” said Hisashi Dobashi, a JAXA official. “We believe if we keep developing our technologies, a manned space mission will be possible.”

If approved, the mission would mark a major change of direction for Japan’s space program, which has for decades focused on robotic scientific probes.

It would also up the ante in an increasingly heated space race in Asia. Both China and India have announced moon missions, and President Bush has proclaimed that the United States will return to the moon in the next decade or so and will try to send astronauts to Mars as well.

Details under wraps
Dobashi refused to discuss details of the plan, which would require a huge influx of funds. JAXA now has a yearly budget of about $2 billion — compared with NASA’s $16.2 billion.

According to a report Monday in the Mainichi Shimbun, a major newspaper, JAXA hopes to develop a robot to conduct probes on the moon by 2010, then begin constructing a solar-powered manned research base on the moon and design a reusable piloted space vessel like the U.S. space shuttle by 2025.

Long Asia’s leading spacefaring nation, Japan has lately been struggling to get out from under the shadow of China, which put its first astronaut into orbit in October 2003, a feat Japan has yet to accomplish.

Beijing has since announced it is aiming to put a man on the moon. India said last year it would send a manned mission to the moon by 2015, but is reconsidering that project because of the high cost. Officials say an unmanned mission is still in the works, however.

Ups and downs for space program
Japan’s space program has been plagued by failures in recent years.

One month after China’s first manned mission, a Japanese H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites malfunctioned after liftoff, forcing controllers to end its mission in a spectacular fireball.

Further launches were put on hold for 15 months.

But on Saturday, Japan took a big step toward re-establishing the credibility of its space program with the successful launch of an H-2A rocket that placed a communications and navigation satellite into orbit.

Experts said concern over being left in China’s shadow has been a factor in Japan’s new focus on starting up a manned program of its own.

“The success of China’s manned mission ended up playing a role in allowing space officials to voice their opinions more openly,” said Saburo Matsunaga, assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “Space projects have broad implications on the various abilities of a country, and China’s success gave Japan a sense of economic crisis.”