Japan Reassessing Its Human Space Flight Goals Too

Japan Reassessing Its Human Space Flight Goals Too

The Obama Administration’s decision to extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) may be welcome news to the space agencies involved in the project, but apparently not everyone in the Japanese government has bought into it. An editorial in Thursday’s Yomiuri Shimbum notes that a Japanese panel of experts has recommended that the Japanese government reexamine the benefits from the space program and “did not rule out that Japan might withdraw from the ISS program in the future.”

The editorial comments that 40 billon of the country’s 200 billion yen non-national security space budget goes to the ISS, “Yet there have been so far only a few space experiments that have eventually led to discoveries that can have an industrial application” and proposals to use Japan’s Kibo laboratory module “have only trickled in.”

The main thrust of the editorial is criticizing the Japanese government for not paying sufficient attention to the future of the space program, calling it “quite irresponsible” for not having held any meetings of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy “which is supposed to be the control tower on the matter.” Japan’s 2008 Basic Space Law created that body, led by the Prime Minister.

The heads of the space agencies from the countries involved in the ISS program — the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada — met in Tokyo in March. They released a joint statement expressing “mutual interest in continuing operations and utilization for as long as the benefits of ISS exploitation are demonstrated.” The statement added that all would work within their governments “to reach consensus later this year on the continuation of the ISS to the next decade.” It also stated that the partnership was working to certify that the panoply of space station modules and other hardware could operate until 2028, 30 years after the first two were launched, a hint of optimism that the governments would agree that ISS is worth the investment.

Last year Japan released a Basic Space Plan to implement to its Basic Space Law. The government recently reviewed all its programs looking for cost savings and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) did fairly well in that evaluation. Japan has been the steadiest partner in the ISS program, delivering just what it promised at the beginning. As was true for the United States, it would be odd for Japan to turn away from the ISS program just as the facility is finally built, but every partner country faces its own challenges in justifying space program expenditures, as underscored by the ongoing debate over the future of the U.S. human space flight program.

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