July 7, 2017 3:30 pm JST

Japan's moon ambition faces skeptical public

Government prioritizes space business; Japanese prefer social spending

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walks on the moon in 1969. The photograph was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong. © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's space agency last week rolled out an ambitious vision of sending an astronaut to the moon.

It was met with a whimper.

Media coverage was modest, drowned out by news about money scandals swirling around Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as by reports on the then upcoming Tokyo assembly elections, which would deal a heavy blow to Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. There wasn't much buzz on social media, either, according to the Astronomical Society of Japan.

This suggests the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency -- or JAXA, the protagonist of landing a man on the moon -- faces a struggle in gaining support for the costly project, which has yet to obtain political backing.

"The public has greeted the news with some skepticism," said Kazuto Suzuki, a professor at Hokkaido University and a space policy specialist. "People are asking, 'If the government has so much money to spend, why are there so many problems with our schools and hospitals.'"

Scientists hope the skepticism gives way to optimism as the project is fleshed out.

"Such exciting plans for future human lunar scientific expeditions will be an inspiration for youth for decades to come," said James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University. He said John F. Kennedy's proposal to send a man to the moon inspired him to work for NASA's Apollo program and pursue a career in space science.

The announcement "is a very welcome signal of international leadership in the space science and technology arena," he added.

A manned space mission would cost trillions of yen, or tens of billions of dollars, if conducted independently, according to JAXA. The agency's proposal is to collaborate with NASA. But even then, the project would cost Japan several billions of dollars.

To the public, though, the proposal looks like a white elephant.

"People would rather want the money spent on themselves than on a moonshot," Suzuki said. "The government would have a hard time rallying the nation behind any ambitious new project."

Under JAXA's vision, Japan would join a NASA-led project to build a space station near the moon in the 2020s. The depot would be used as a junction for a manned lunar surface mission to be undertaken by 2030.

Moreover, the space station would form part of NASA's Deep Space Gateway plan to reach more distant celestial bodies.

To date, the U.S. is the only country to have placed astronauts on the moon. It last did so in 1972.

JAXA also has a job in convincing the rest of the Japanese government, which in May decided to prioritize building out a Japanese space industry over manned space missions.

The space business includes launching commercial satellites for other countries and using satellites to help conduct big-data analyses.

Japan's lukewarm attitude toward manned missions compares with China's single-minded pursuit of space superpower status.

China launched its first sky laboratory, the Tiangong-1, in 2011, then followed that up in 2013 by deploying a rover on the moon's surface. China is planning to send a rover to Mars in 2020.

JAXA thinks partnering with the U.S. and Europe will bring its goal much closer to reality and help make up for its meager space budget, around 300 billion yen ($2.7 billion) a year, or about 0.3% of the national budget.

But the agency needs to prove its project's utility if it wants to stand a chance of winning a coveted spot on the NASA-led space station.

One possible contribution by Japan could be to develop a reusable shuttle between the space station and the moon, JAXA said.

The agency is also hoping to help the U.S. and Europe discover whether ice deposits exist near the south pole of the moon. Ice deposits could be used as fuel for long-distance space travel from the space station.

Japan is expected to unveil more details about its envisioned manned space missions when it hosts the International Space Exploration Forum in March 2018.

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