SEOUL, South Korea — Japan’s space agency JAXA said Feb. 28 it had selected two astronaut candidates as part of efforts to support the NASA-led Artemis lunar exploration program.

It was the first time JAXA has chosen astronaut candidates since 2009 when the agency picked two candidates for International Space Station missions.

The two latest candidates are Makoto Suwa, 46, a disaster prevention specialist at the World Bank, and Ayu Yoneda, 28, a surgeon at the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center. They will join JAXA on April 1 for two years of training, the agency said in a Feb. 28 statement.

Yoneda is the youngest candidate selected, while Suwa is the oldest candidate selected, according to Kyodo News.

“I was happy, surprised and felt determined by a sense of responsibility and duty,” Yoneda said in Japanese at a livestreamed press conferencein Tokyo, according to Kyodo. “I’m interested in seeing how the Earth looks from the Moon during an eclipse.” 

Joining online from Washington, Suwa said, “I felt a great sense of responsibility when notified.”

Suwa previously worked on a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program in Rwanda and for the World Meteorological Organization, and has worked at the World Bank since 2014. Yoneda graduated from the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of medicine in 2019.

Once officially certified as astronauts, the pair would have the opportunity to join missions to the International Space Station and participate in the Artemis program. Japan joined the program in 2019, with the goal of being the second country in the world to land an astronaut on the moon, following the United States. 

NASA and the Japanese government signed an agreement in November finalizing Japan’s contributions to the lunar Gateway that also confirmed Japan would participate in the International Space Station through 2030. As part of the agreement, NASA will fly a JAXA astronaut to the Gateway on a future Artemis mission. At that time, Japan’s science and technology minister said the country would seek to land a Japanese astronaut on the moon “by the latter half of the 2020s.”

In January, Washington reaffirmed its commitment to landing a Japanese astronaut on the moon. At the signing ceremony of a bilateral space cooperation framework agreement at NASA headquarters, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the agreement will “strengthen our partnership in areas like research on space technology and transportation, robotic lunar surface missions, climate-related missions and our shared ambition to see a Japanese astronaut on the lunar surface.”

JAXA’s selection process began in April 2022 following an 10-week window for accepting applications. A total of 4,127 people applied, with eight men and two women making it to the final round of tests in January through February this year.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...