Biden and Kishida: First Non-US Astronaut on the Moon Will be Japanese

Biden and Kishida: First Non-US Astronaut on the Moon Will be Japanese

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister KISHIDA Fumio just announced that two Japanese astronauts will join future American missions to the Moon and one will become the first non-American to land on the surface. They also signed an implementing agreement for Japan to provide a pressurized rover for astronauts to use on the Moon.

Kishida is on a state visit to the United States this week. In a joint press conference at the White House this afternoon, they summarized their discussions on a wide number of issues. Space cooperation came up in the context of science and education.

“We also affirmed the science and education ties between Japan and the United States. Those ties stretch up to the Moon where two Japanese astronauts will join future American missions and one will become the first non-American ever to land on the Moon.” — President Joe Biden


Japanese Prime Minister KISHIDA Fumio (L) and U.S. President Joe Biden (R) at the White House during Kishida’s state visit, April 10, 2024. Screengrab.

A few minutes later, Kishida expressed his enthusiasm about space cooperation and how it stretches back to his childhood. His father was a Japanese government trade official posted to New York when he was a child and he went to elementary school in Queens.

“In addition we concurred to advance our cooperation in the areas such as decarbonization, AI, and startups, and there was a huge achievement in the area of space.

“In the first half of the 1960s, when I was in the United States, it was the dawn of space development in the United States. I am one of all those who were so excited in the U.S. by the spectacular challenge in space.  An implementing arrangement has been signed on this occasion on the provision of the lunar rover by Japan and the allocation of two astronaut flight opportunities to the lunar surface to Japan were confirmed. Under the Artemis program I welcome the lunar landing by a Japanese astronaut as the first non-U.S. astronaut.” — Japanese Prime Minister Kishida

The pressurized lunar rover, Lunar Cruiser, has been under development for some time by Toyota and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Last week NASA announced agreements with three U.S. companies to conduct feasibility studies for unpressurized rovers and Lara Kearney, NASA’s program manager for Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility at Johnson Space Center, said that an announcement about Japan’s pressurized rover would come this week. Unpressurized rovers are useful for helping astronauts traverse long distances on the Moon, but they have to wear spacesuits. A pressurized rover allows them to work in a shirtsleeve environment.

In a media briefing this afternoon, Danny Newswander, NASA’s Pressurized Rover Project Manager at Johnson Space Center, said the plan is for the rover to be on the lunar surface in 2031 to support the Artemis VII mission and operate for 10 years. In a statement, NASA said it will provide the launch and at today’s briefing Kearney identified the cargo version of one of the Human Landing Systems being built by SpaceX and Blue Origin as the likely launch vehicle.

Including a Japanese astronaut on a U.S. lunar landing mission has been rumored for some time, but it wasn’t clear a formal announcement would be made as part of this state visit.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and MORIYAMA Masahito, Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which oversees JAXA, signed an implementing agreement yesterday for the rover and the inclusion of Japanese astronauts on lunar landing missions.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (L) and Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology MORIYAMA Masahito (R) hold signed copies of an agreement between the United States and Japan to advance sustainable human exploration of the Moon, Tuesday, April 9, 2024, at NASA Headquarters. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In a video released today with footage from the ceremony, which included JAXA President YAMAKAWA Hiroshi, Nelson said “America will no longer walk on the Moon alone. … We are going, and we’re going with Japan.”

The White House’s “Joint Leaders Statement” summarizing the broad scope of what two countries agreed to during this visit includes the caveat that putting a Japanese astronaut on the Moon is a “shared goal … assuming important benchmarks are achieved.”

In the media briefing, Nelson explained that means the selected Japanese astronaut has to meet the appropriate training and skill set requirements, which is true for any astronaut assigned to a mission. Asked when the Japanese astronaut might fly, the answer was “it depends” on a Japanese astronaut meeting the requirements and the cadence of the U.S. missions to the Moon.

Japan already is a partner in the Artemis program. Japan and the European Space Agency are providing an international habitation module, I-Hab, for the Gateway space station that will be in lunar orbit to support the surface missions. Japan also was one of the original signatories to the Artemis Accords.

U.S.-Japan space cooperation dates back to the late 1960s in launch vehicles, space and earth science, and human spaceflight. Japan joined what became the International Space Station program (originally Space Station Freedom) in the late 1980s and provided the Japanese Experiment Module, JEM, also called Kibo (Hope), one of the three science laboratories on the U.S. segment. Japan also built the HTV cargo vehicle that resupplied the ISS nine times between 2009 and 2020. An upgraded version, HTV-X, is in development. Japanese astronauts routinely fly to the ISS.  FURUKAWA Satoshi just returned from a 6-month mission as part of the NASA/SpaceX Crew-7 mission.

Crew-7 (L-R): Konstantin Borisov (Roscosmos), Andreas Mogensen (ESA), Jasmin Moghbeli (NASA),, FURUKAWA Satoshi (JAXA).  Photo credit: NASA/Bill Stafford and Robert Markowitz

Japan also just became only the fifth country to successfully land a robotic probe on the Moon. Its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) landed in January. Although these new types of small, relatively inexpensive landers are not designed to survive the long (14-day) bitter cold lunar nights and SLIM landed upside down without one of its engines, it has survived not just one, but two.

This article has been updated.

Note: In Japan, a person’s family name appears first, followed by the first name. For convenience in western cultures the family name is capitalized to make the distinction. We have followed that custom here.

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