TOKYO -- NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine proposed to the Japanese government during a visit in September 2019 that it join the U.S. in a plan to put Japanese astronauts on the surface of the moon in the latter half of the 2020s, multiple sources familiar with the matter said.
If this were to be realized, it would be Japan's first moon landing, and it could possibly make the country only the second in history, after the U.S., to put a person on the astronomical body. The U.S. believes the moon is set to become a strategic point in the near future both in terms of economics and security, and its moves to strengthen ties with Japan are apparently part of an aim to check China's rise to interstellar prominence.
In May 2019, the U.S. government announced the Artemis program, a project to get astronauts back on the surface of the moon with a final goal to send humans to Mars. Currently it aims to achieve it by 2024, via a new space station called Gateway to be established in the moon's vicinity.
Unlike the Apollo program missions between 1961 and 1972, which were about achieving landings, NASA has its sights set on building a moon base that will enable astronauts to continually stay on the celestial object as early as the latter half of the 2020s. The U.S.'s plans have been drawn up with a keen awareness of China's moves to herald itself as a strong space nation by having its own moon base in the 2030s.
At the end of May 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received U.S. President Donald Trump as a state guest, and declared that Japan was reviewing possible participation in Washington's program.
Bridenstine then held an unofficial meeting on Sept. 24, 2019, in Tokyo with figures including Yoshiyuki Kasai, head of the government's Space Policy Committee and honorary chairman at the Central Japan Railway Co., Takafumi Matsui, deputy head of the same committee as well as the director at the Chiba Institute of Technology's Planetary Exploration Research Center and a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and Takehiko Matsuo, head of the National Space Policy Secretariat among others.
At the meeting, Bridenstine is reported to have petitioned the attendees to carry out a forward-thinking assessment with a vision of having Japanese astronauts stand alongside American ones on the moon.
Until now the only people to have set foot on the moon are 12 U.S. astronauts serving during the Apollo program. President Trump intends to send humans to the moon annually, with the first personnel landing set to be a pair of male and female astronauts in 2024. And although the U.S. has not clarified a time span in which it expects to see Japanese astronauts on the moon, it's believed it wants to do so from the second mission in 2025 and onwards, and it also appears that the U.S. expects to have further financial cooperation from Japan.
But while Prime Minister Abe finalized the basic policies of a place for Japan's participation in initiatives with an aim to strengthen cooperative ties with the U.S., the government stopped short of offering concrete measures beyond supplying equipment and technology to the Gateway space station.
Japan's annual budget for international space exploration related activities stands at about 35 billion to 40 billion yen (U.S. $322 million to 368 million). According to internal documents from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun, just the points that the government intends to address as described in an October 2019 report will require approximately 213 billion yen by fiscal 2024. If Japan were to commit to putting people on the moon's surface, it appears an even greater financial burden would be required.
The U.S. government is expecting to announce details about the Artemis program as early as the spring. With those finer points clarified, the Japanese government will consider whether Japanese astronauts will go to the moon, and how deeply Japan can involve itself in the initiative.