Japan wants a JAXA astronaut to be first “non-American” to join a NASA lunar landing

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SEOUL, South Korea — Japan’s recently elected prime minister set an end-of-the-decade goal for sending Japanese astronauts to the moon as part of the U.S.-led Artemis program. 

“We will promote the Artemis project to perform manned activities on the moon, and in the late 2020s, we will try to realize the lunar landing of Japanese astronauts,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office and formed his cabinet in October, said during a Dec. 28 meeting of the Strategic Headquarters for Space Development.

Kishida, Japan’s former top diplomat and the head of the country’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said the goal was part of a revised space policy roadmap he’s submitting for cabinet approval. Japan’s new fiscal year begins April 1. 

The revised roadmap calls for cooperating with Japan’s private sector to develop crewed lunar rovers and other “systems that are essential for human activities on the moon.”

“In addition,” the revised roadmap states, “we plan to land a Japanese [astronaut] on the moon by the late 2020s, to realize the goal of becoming the first non-American to do so.”

Canada, the United States’ neighbor to the north, is the only Artemis partner that already has secured seats for its astronauts on NASA’s planned moon missions. Last December, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency finalized an agreement that entitles a Canadian astronaut to join three U.S. astronauts on Artemis 2, a planned 2024 mission to fly the Orion spacecraft around the moon before returning to Earth. Canada also has a seat on an unspecified future mission to the lunar Gateway.

NASA plans to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972 with the two-person Artemis 3 mission, now slated for 2025. Both seats have been assigned to U.S. astronauts. What comes after that is largely up in the air.

In the meantime, Japan has begun a recruiting drive for new astronauts, with a Dec. 20 call for applications that ends March 4. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which currently employs seven active-duty astronauts with an average age of 52, expects to select a new class of astronauts in February 2023.