JAXA Eager to Join with NASA in Step-by-Step Human Space Exploration

JAXA Eager to Join with NASA in Step-by-Step Human Space Exploration

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is developing plans for extending human space exploration into deep space in cooperation with NASA.   JAXA astronaut Takuya Onishi shared JAXA’s current thinking at a series of appearances in Washington, D.C. last week, including the Humans to Mars (H2M) conference.  JAXA is one of the partners in the NASA-led International Space Station (ISS) and sees ISS as a testbed that will lead to the Moon and, in the longer term, Mars.

JAXA astronaut Takuya Onishi.

Onishi, a former commercial airline pilot, joined the JAXA astronaut corps in 2009 and spent almost four months aboard ISS in 2016.  He is one of nine Japanese astronauts, another of whom, Norishige Kanai, is onboard ISS right now.

Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working under the aegis of the European Space Agency (ESA) have been partners with the United States in what is now known as ISS since the program began.  President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build a space station in cooperation with other countries in his 1984 State of the Union Address.  Japan, Canada and Europe quickly indicated their interest in joining.  In 1988, with the signing of an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), they formally became partners with the United States in building Space Station Freedom.  In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia also joined.  The design was modified for that and other reasons and the program became known as ISS.  A revised IGA was signed by all the countries in 1998.

One of the three scientific research modules on ISS was built by Japan.  (The others were provided by the United States and Europe.)  The Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), named Kibo (Hope), is the largest and the only one that has both a pressurized volume and an unpressurized “back porch” where experiments that need to be exposed to space can be placed.  JEM also is well known as the ISS module from which cubesats are deployed into orbit.  In addition, Japan builds and launches HTV (or Kounotori) spacecraft that deliver cargo to the ISS approximately once a year.   It is currently developing an improved, less costly version, HTV-X.

Speaking at H2M and a seminar organized by JAXA’s Washington office, Onishi laid out Japan’s current plan for using its experience with Kibo and the ISS in expanding human exploration of space in cooperation with NASA.

Credit: JAXA
Credit: JAXA

Onishi spoke compellingly about the challenges of human space exploration, especially as people move further out from Earth.  He said that he is often asked if he was scared when aboard ISS and the answer is no, in part because Earth is so close.  Astronauts spend a lot of their free time in the multi-windowed Cupola module looking down at the planet.  Onishi said one still feels part of Earth when aboard ISS.  On the Moon, the Earth will still be prominent in an astronaut’s field of view, if much further away.  On Mars, however, it will be only a dot in the sky.

On ISS, “I never felt that I was separate from my home planet.  That feeling gave me a huge psychological effect.  I would like to point out if we go to the Moon or go to Mars, it is very important to think about the psychological effect on astronauts. … I cannot imagine how I would feel landing on Mars. ”

Among the other challenges are providing the rudiments of daily life like easy-to-use toilets and tasty space food, as well as reducing maintenance requirements.  He said the ISS astronauts spend about 20 percent of their time on scheduled maintenance and more on unscheduled problems that arise, like an all-day task he was assigned to fix the toilet.  Many spare parts are needed and he said another reason he was never scared while on ISS  was because he knew repair parts easily could be sent from Earth.  That will not be the case as astronauts venture further into space.

Onishi said that in his opinion, going to Mars with today’s technology is “super challenging.  Or nearly impossible.”  A step-by-step approach is needed, with ISS as a “testbed,” leading to lunar missions.  Then, eventually, Mars.

Onishi did not directly address the question of how long ISS should be operated, a topic being debated right now by the Trump Administration and Congress.

During the Obama Administration, JAXA and the other ISS partners agreed to NASA’s proposal to extend ISS operations first to 2020 and then to 2024, so that is the end of Japan’s current obligation.  He said Japan would continue to use JEM until 2024, and “after that there might be an option to continue to utilize low Earth orbit to gain new capabilities to explore, and to get new partners, like other countries and other  private companies involved.”

In December 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe directed JAXA to establish a new organization for space exploration, which Onishi said would be established this summer.   Japan wants to contribute to lunar exploration in four areas: logistics, habitation, a lander and a rover.

In particular, Japan is looking at using the HTV-X for logistics support of NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), its experience in building and operating JEM to participate in the LOP-G habitation module, and its advanced automobile technology to develop a lunar surface rover.

Japan has already sent spacecraft to the Moon.  Most recently, its Kaguya (or SELENE) spacecraft orbited the Moon from 2007-2009, returning data on the Moon’s mineralogical composition, geography, surface and sub-surface structure, and magnetic and gravity fields, as well as images of Earth.  JAXA is currently working on the development of a small lunar lander, SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon), with pinpoint landing accuracy to look for water resources.

Onishi stressed that it is very important to “continue to work with international partners as well as private companies” in order to make space exploration sustainable.  Cooperation with NASA is “critical” and Japan wants to open discussions about its future mission developments to “all partners around the world.”

In that vein, Japan hosted the second International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF-2) in March.  The first was hosted by the United States in 2014.  At ISEF-2, 45 countries jointly discussed future space cooperation and issued three documents (a Joint Statement, the Tokyo Principles for International Space Exploration, and Terms of Reference).  Onishi said the result was “acknowledging the common vision that international space exploration is going to be an important challenge … to push the boundaries of human exploration beyond LEO, to the Moon, Mars and further.”

The ISS partners and other countries also have been discussing the future of human exploration for several years through the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG).  The third version of  its “Global Exploration Roadmap” was issued in January 2018.

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