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Japanese Astronauts on the Moon

Published on 11 April 2024

U.S. President Joe Biden has guaranteed that two Japanese astronauts will walk on the moon and that one of them will even be the first non-American to do so. Together with Toyota, the Japanese space agency JAXA will provide a pressurised lunar rover.

Japanese Astronauts on the Moon

On 10 April, during a visit to  the United States by several Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, the two countries showed their willingness to strengthen their cooperation, particularly in the space sector. In this regard the most symbolic announcement concerns the fact that the first non-American person to walk on the Moon will come from the ranks of JAXA, the Japanese space agency.

A CERTAIN GEOPOLITICAL CONTEXT

The announcement could come as a surprise because of the scale of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) participation in the Artemis program returning to the Moon. It provides the ESM (European Service Module) service module, essential to NASA’s Orion spacecraft, as well as two modules (I-Hab and ESPRIT) of the planned Gateway station orbiting the Moon.
It should be noted that the promise made to Japan does not come from NASA, but from the American government. The key phrase, namely that “two Japanese astronauts will join future American missions: one will become the first non-American to land on the moon” (at 2:50 in the video opposite), was pronounced by the President of the United States, Joe Biden himself, in front of the White House in the presence of the Prime Minister of Japan Kishida Fumio. This represents a formal framework in support of the geopolitical context. Indeed, on April 10, Japan and the United States showed their willingness to strengthen their cooperation, in economic, military and scientific fronts.

From left to right: Japanese Minister Masahito Moriyama (back), JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stand in front of a mock-up of the Lunar Cruiser on April 9 at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC.
© NASA/Bill Ingalls

STAGES TO GO THROUGH … NOT TO MENTION CHINA

The day before, on April 9 and in the same city (the federal capital Washington, DC), at NASA headquarters, its administrator Bill Nelson signed an agreement on the supply by the Japanese space agency JAXA of an ambitious pressurised rover, the Lunar Cruiser (see below). The agreement was signed by Masahito Moriyama, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan in the presence of JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa. In addition the Land of the Rising Sun will take operational responsibility for the rover for a period of ten years. This positive contribution to the Artemis program is focused on what will happen on the surface of our natural satellite. A White House statement further specified that “a Japanese national will be the first non-American astronaut to land on the Moon as part of a future Artemis mission, assuming important criteria are met.” It is clear that particular steps (yet to be specified) will have to be taken by JAXA, with, of course, the progress of the lunar rover in mind.

WHAT IF CHINA ARRIVES EARLIER?

There is, however, one factor that neither the United States nor Japan can control in their stated goal, and that is the Chinese crewed lunar program. China no longer makes any secret of its desire to see its astronauts set foot on the surface of the Moon by 2030, and some specialists are predicting 2029 because of its great symbolic potential for the country since it will be the year of the 80th anniversary of the People’s Republic. The first American steps on the moon in the 21st century are now officially scheduled for the end of 2026 with Artemis III. However, a delay remains possible given the complexity of the architecture of NASA’s lunar missions and there is no guarantee at the moment that a Japanese man or woman will be on the Artemis III trip.

European and Japanese participations

Initiated by NASA, Artemis brings together ESA, JAXA as well as the Canadian space agency (ASC, which provides a robotic arm) and recently that of the United Arab Emirates.
As we mentioned above, ESA’s participation in Artemis is important. However, it concerns the Earth-Moon journey and return (ESM service module) as well as the Gateway, therefore the orbital infrastructure. As such, three ESA astronauts will carry out missions in the Gateway station, therefore in lunar orbit without going to the surface. In addition, part of the ESM provided by the ESA are in fact barter agreements so that Europe fulfills its share in the International Space Station (ISS) and therefore do not count for Artemis. JAXA participates in the Gateway life support system. For the moment, ESA does not really participate in operations on the surface of the Moon.
On the other hand, the Lunar Cruiser, the pressurized rover jointly developed by Toyota and JAXA, is a direct contribution to the exploration of our celestial neighbor on its surface.

NASA illustration of the Gateway, the planned station orbiting the Moon of the Artemis program.
© NASA

Illustrations of the Lunar Cruiser rover. The vertical solar panels are explained by the fact that they will travel in the South Polar regions of our natural satellite, where the Sun is close to the horizon. The Artemis program is indeed targeting these areas on the Moon as a priority.
© Toyota

LUNAR CRUISER

A MOBILE HABITAT ON THE MOON

The technical challenges of what is in fact a mobile habitat on our natural satellite should not be ignored. 6 m long and with a pressurised area of 7 m2, the Japanese vehicle will accommodate two astronauts for periods of up to 30 days. The mobility provided (and thus the possibility of reaching scientifically important sites) is far superior to the non-pressurised rovers currently being considered under NASA contracts by American manufacturers. There is, therefore, complementarity and not opposition. The Lunar Cruiser must also be able to operate for about ten years while facing temperatures ranging from -170°C to 120°C.  This implies an automatic mode in the absence of astronauts.

Toyota video on the Lunar Cruiser, a mobile habitat that will support the Artemis missions.

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