Japan and NASA Formally Agree to Gateway Cooperation

Japan and NASA Formally Agree to Gateway Cooperation

Japan has formally agreed to participate in the lunar-orbiting Gateway space station that is part of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.  A declaration of intent signed last year paved the way for this agreement. The European Space Agency and Canada also have signed on.

In March 2019, the Trump Administration accelerated NASA’s plan to put astronauts back on the Moon making 2024 the target date instead of 2028. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stresses, however, that the 2024 landing is just a first step in a long-term sustainable program of lunar exploration and utilization that includes commercial and international partners.  The current plan calls for putting a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit as a transfer point for astronauts traveling between Earth and the lunar surface.

Many consider the 2024 deadline unachievable for technical and budgetary reasons. Although Congress provided only one-quarter of the requested FY2021 funding for the Human Landing Systems (HLS) needed to get down to and back from the surface, there is bipartisan support for the overall goal.

The incoming Biden Administration has not made its position clear on Artemis, but the Democratic party platform specifically supported human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

NASA appears to be endeavoring to get as many Artemis agreements as possible in place before the end of the Trump Administration next week. The Gateway is the current focus of international cooperation building on existing agreements with ESA, Canada and Japan for the earth-orbiting  International Space Station (ISS) which just celebrated 20 years of permanent human occupancy.  Russia is also an ISS partner, but has not yet agreed to participate in Gateway.

Gateway will be about one-sixth the size of ISS and will not be permanently occupied. Astronauts will stay there only briefly to transfer to and from the HLS systems or to conduct scientific studies or other operations.

Illustration of the Gateway showing which components will be provided by various international partners: NASA, Canada (CSA), Europe (ESA), and Japan (JAXA). A potential Russian airlock (with the Roscosmos logo) is also shown although Russia has not yet agreed to participate. Credit: ESA

The agreement just signed is for Japan to contribute life support capabilities and additional space for crews to live and work for the I-Hab (International Habitation) module that will be built by ESA.  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will provide environmental control and life support systems, batteries, thermal control, and imagery components for I-Hab as well as batteries for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) that Northrop Grumman is building. Japan is also considering using its HTV-X cargo resupply spacecraft to deliver cargo to Gateway.

In a statement, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate said that “Leveraging the capabilities that international partners contribute to Gateway will be key to enabling access to the lunar surface. … We are pleased to move forward in these groundbreaking efforts with Japan and our other partners.”

Canada was the first country to join the effort in 2019 and NASA just announced last month that a Canadian astronaut will be a member of the first Orion crew, Artemis II, which will fly around the Moon.

ESA formally joined in October 2020 and secured three flight opportunities for European astronauts to travel to and work on the Gateway.

NASA and Japan signed a Joint Exploration Declaration of Intent (JEDI) in July 2020 and now this formal agreement.  NASA’s press release noted it “marks NASA’s intent to provide crew opportunities for Japanese astronauts to the Gateway, which will be determined following additional discussions, and documented in a future arrangement.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (on screen) and Government of Japan Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) Koichi Hagiuda hold copies of a Joint Exploration Declaration of Intent (JEDI) signed during a virtual meeting on July 9 (July 10 Japan time), 2020. Credits: Department of State/Stephen Wheeler

NASA’s press release is dated January 12, 2021 and mentions no other date for when the agreement was signed, but Japan issued a press release on January 13 stating the Memorandum of Understanding went into effect on December 31, 2020.

Last month, Bridenstine tweeted his delight that the Japanese government increased JAXA’s budget to pay for its Artemis contributions.

Note: this article has been updated with information from the Japanese press release.

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