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HELP WANTED: Astronauts for Japan's space program. No science background required

Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui introduces Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's campaign logo for the recruitment of Japanese astronauts for the first time in 13 years, at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 18, 2021. The logo was created with increasing the number of female applicants in mind. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Ikeda)

TOKYO -- The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has launched a recruitment drive for new astronauts for the first time in 13 years, with an eye to crewing a space station that will orbit the moon.

    The hiring drive launched on Nov. 19 greatly eases the previous application requirements, doing away with questions about applicants' academic background or whether they specialized in the arts or sciences.

    It is expected that "a small number" of people will be recruited. After the selections are announced in around February 2023, the astronauts will undergo training, and JAXA envisages they will be involved in the U.S.-led Gateway project to build a space station in lunar orbit. They are also expected to take part in activities on the moon's surface.

    When JAXA last hired astronaut hopefuls in 2008, applicants had to have graduated from a four-year university course in the natural sciences or engineering. This time, however, the scope has been widened to encourage more people to apply. It is possible for people who have only graduated from high school to apply, but during the selection process, they will undergo an English exam and they will also be tested in science on a level on par with Japan's national civil service general employment test. A new evaluation of whether the applicant can express their experiences and achievements to the public will also be added.

    The current seven Japanese astronauts are all men, so JAXA will actively recruit women. During the last application process, women accounted for just 13% of the 963 applicants, but this year the agency is aiming to raise that ratio to around 30%. JAXA had considered creating a female quota but decided not to, as the final number of recruits will be small.

    The minimum qualification for applying is having at least three years' experience working in society (those who have obtained a masters' degree will be deemed to already have one year's experience and those with a doctorate three years). Applicants must also be between 149.5 and 190.5 centimeters in height, and must not have any abnormalities in their corrected vision, or in their color vision or hearing. The height requirement has been lowered from the previous minimum of 158 centimeters due to spaceship improvements, making it easier for more women to apply. The requirement of being able to swim 75 meters was also removed as this can be accomplished with training.

    Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui explains the first recruitment of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronauts in 13 years, at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Ideda)

    Up until now, the man base of activities for Japanese astronauts has been the International Space Station, but applicants are now being sought with moon exploration in view.

    The U.S. Artemis human spaceflight program is looking to have astronauts land on the moon again from 2025. A Japanese astronaut is expected to join the crew of the Gateway station, which is scheduled to get under construction in 2024. However, the average age of Japanese astronauts is now 52, and there could be a shortage of astronauts from the 2030s when lunar activities are expected to advance. Securing new astronauts has thus been an urgent task for Japan.

    JAXA recruiting drives are expected about once every five years going forward.

    The agency has established a site on recruitment guidelines (in Japanese) at Applications will be accepted from Dec. 20 this year to March 4 next year. Those who are selected will join JAXA in April 2022, and their certification as astronauts is expected around March 2025.

    (Japanese original by Tomohiro Ikeda, Science & Environment News Department)

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