Japan seeks a new generation of astronauts for moon mission | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 03.12.2021

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Japan seeks a new generation of astronauts for moon mission

Japan's space agency is looking to recruit people from a wide variety of backgrounds as part of an ambitious international mission to the moon that aims to build a lunar base camp.

An artist rendering of an Artemis lunar satellite

Japan is recruiting astronauts for the US-led 'Artemis' program to return people to the moon

For as long as he can remember, engineering student Koichi Nagasaku has only ever wanted to be an astronaut.

After the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently announced an aggressive recruitment campaign that broadens the criteria for applicants, Nagasaku believes his chance has arrived to go where only a select few have gone before.

"I can remember being interested in space when I was very young, but that became a fascination when I was in high school and we studied the Hayabusa 2 project," said 20-year-old Nagasaku.

Hayabusa 2 was a JAXA mission launched in 2014 to collect samples from asteroids. In 2018, a Hayabusa 2 rover landed on the asteroid 162173 Ryugu and a capsule returned the samples back to Earth in December 2020.

With its mission completed, the spacecraft has been repurposed and sent to rendezvous with asteroids at the edge of the solar system.

Since Hayabusa 2 was launched, it has orbited around the sun for a total of 6.2 billion kilometers (3.8 billion miles) and is at present nearly 99 million miles from the Earth. 

A blurry photo of an asteroid's rocky surface

A photo of an asteroid Ryugu's surface taken by the Hayabusa-2 rover

"That is an unbelievable achievement, and that mission really made me want to have a career in space," Nagasaku told DW.

Japan aims for a new generation of space exploration

And Nagasaku may be just the kind of candidate that JAXA is seeking. In late November, JAXA announced that it was launching a recruitment drive for a new generation of space explorers for the first time in 13 years.

As an engineering student, Nagasaku would be a perfect fit, as space programs traditionally recruit people from science, engineering and mathematics. 

However, JAXA has said it would broaden its criteria and no longer disqualify applicants with arts degrees.

By early 2023, JAXA said it expects to narrow applicants down to an unspecified "small number" who will progress to astronaut training.

The initial aim is to have a Japanese crew included aboard a space station that will orbit the moon as part of the NASA-led Gateway project, an important part of the US space agency's Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface.

Gateway envisages the construction of a space station orbiting the moon, followed by building of a permanent base on the lunar surface.

Asteroid Ryugu floats in black space

The asteroid Ryugu seen in 2018 from Hayabusa 2

Japan looks for female astronauts

A key element of the initiative is encouraging more women to become astronauts, JAXA said.

At present, all of Japan's seven serving astronauts are men, and just 13% of the 963 applicants in the last round of recruitment, in 2008, were female.

This time, the agency hopes to have women accounting for 30% of the successful applicants.  

Naoko Yamazaki, Japan's second female astronaut, is a key element of the campaign to attract women to the project.

She took part in an online event on December 1 in which anyone considering applying to the program could put questions to JAXA officials and astronauts.  

"I was interested in space from when I was a child, but Japan did not have an astronaut at that time, so that became my ambition," said 50-year-old Yamazaki, who was aboard the 2010 NASA space shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  

"Space exploration is entering a new era and moving on from the ISS to a facility on the moon, so the next generation of Japanese astronauts will need to be flexible," she told DW.

"If their training does not immediately go smoothly, they must be able to find another way to succeed," she added.

"I understand that NASA's Artemis mission intends to put the first woman on the surface of the moon, and I fully support that idea," she said.

"My advice for anyone considering becoming an astronaut would be to follow your dreams and do whatever it is you're interested in or excited about," Yamazaki said.   

Japan in the space race

JAXA's drive reflects the determination within the Japanese government to not slip behind its rivals in the space race, most notably China.

Private companies in Japan are also being encouraged to contribute to the country's next leap into space.  

Earlier this year, the Japanese government enacted new legislation that permits companies to claim ownership of resources that they gather in outer space and wish to exploit commercially.

Four other countries — the US, the UAE and Luxembourg — already have similar laws in place, designed to stimulate investment in the development of space technology and exploration.  

For example, the Japanese lunar robotics company Ispace Inc is attempting to confirm the presence of water, in the form of ice, at the south pole of the moon. The company is also developing rovers and landers for future exploration missions. This is all part of Artemis' grand ambitionto build a base camp on the lunar surface.

"When I see the JAXA plan and other companies' ideas for exploring space, that just gives new impetus to my own dreams," said Nagasaku. "I'm pleased to hear that they are recruiting new astronauts again, and I shall try to earn a place," he added. 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn