In September 2009, less than a month after becoming Japan’s second state minister for space development, 48-year-old Seiji Maehara created waves by calling for Japan to develop its own human spaceflight capabilities. The statement followed close on the heels of the successful debut of Japan’s H-2B heavy-lift rocket carrying a cargo-laden H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) to the international space station. In August, Japan unveiled three design concepts for an upgraded HTV built to return supplies from the space station — a small but important step toward establishing a Japanese human spaceflight capability.
Today Maehara no longer oversees Japan’s space programs. In late September, shortly after talking with Space News correspondent Paul Kallender-Umezu about the Democratic Party of Japan’s space development plans, Maehara was promoted to foreign minister as part of the broad Cabinet reshuffle that followed an internal leadership contest.
The title of state minister for space development now belongs to 61-year-old Banri Kaieda, Japan’s newly installed finance minister.
Kaieda is expected to continue many of the space policies set in motion by Maehara.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has vowed to create a new space agency, perhaps similar in some ways to NASA. This spring, the committee you commissioned recommended breaking the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) into smaller units. What is your position on this issue?
You have to remember that the recommendation report is by Prof. Takafuni Matsui and other experts. The recommendation was aimed at increasing the transparency of Japan’s space development strategy and policy, and to look at how to unify both our decision-making and budget under one authority. In order to urge and promote that idea, we were proposing to establish a space agency under the control of the Cabinet office.
Currently, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which has jurisdiction over JAXA; the Cabinet office; the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; the Ministry of Defense; and other ministries and various other space-related organizations each have their own space budget. Our role is to combine them all together.
In order to fulfill our commitment to making an effective national strategy, we believe it is necessary to unify all these into one system.
Originally this was written in the DPJ’s manifesto. While it is going to take some time to discuss this with all the relevant parties and organizations, we still endeavor to move to this direction.
Is there a deadline for completing this consolidation?
We have not decided on a deadline. However, a bipartisan federation of DPJ and Liberal Democratic Party Diet members have gotten together to discuss how to do this. Within this group are the key members who were responsible for drawing up the 2008 Basic Space Law. This group has requested that unification proceed, so we are doing our very best to complete this.
This summer the DPJ replaced the Basic Space Law with the space policy enshrined in the national “New Growth Strategy.” What changes will we see as a result?
The first point is that we want to turn from a pure research and development orientation toward one that emphasizes utilization. This means pushing the development of products that industry can take advantage of, especially, for example, small satellites and rockets, and real-time Earth monitoring systems. We want to make sure that development meets user needs.
Next, regarding the international space station, this is something we want to continue to cooperate on with the United States. Regarding selling space systems as a package abroad, this is part of our idea to use soft diplomacy to advance our space industry.
Next, when you look at the Hayabusa asteroid mission, that was a seven-year, 300 million-kilometer journey that successfully returned to Earth. This attracted great interest. What we want to do is take the cutting-edge-type technology demonstrated by Hayabusa and develop this even further.
So you can recognize that there is a lot of overlap between the Basic Space Law and the New Growth Strategy.
What are Japan’s priorities for space science, post-Hayabusa?
Well, regarding Hayabusa’s results, these are still being assessed, so I can’t make explicit comments on that. But as far as I am concerned, just the fact that it went all the way over there and came back was a big success itself. Now with the successor mission, Hayabusa 2, we are planning to visit an asteroid that’s relatively close to Earth and possibly contains organic materials in order to get clues as to understand the origin of life. And look at Kaguya, which just completed a highly successful two-year mission investigating the Moon, conducting a gravity mapping mission and elucidating the key differences between the structure of the Moon’s near and far sides. Here again, we were able to find key clues about planetary body formation. So now we want to send Hayabusa 2 to uncover more information about the origins of life in our solar system. What we are really trying to do is use space science to push back the frontiers of scientific knowledge.
The Basic Law of 2008 suggested doubling Japan’s space budget by 2020. Is the DPJ committed to that plan?
We would like to expand the space budget, but Japan is in an extremely tight fiscal position at the moment. That said, we’d like to maintain the funding at current levels for the time being. This year’s request was 339 billion yen ($4.1 billion) and is about the same as last year’s. This is about one-tenth of what the U.S. spends and about half as much as Europe. This means focusing on cutting-edge science and technology, such as the development of Quasi-Zenith timing and navigation system. Also, we need to focus on satellite data-use promotion and sell this as packaged services to other countries.
What are Japan’s confirmed plans for Moon exploration?
According to the Moon Exploration Study Group, we will be sending a soft landing mission to the Moon in 2015 for a short-term investigation.
In 2020, we will set up a base on the south pole for a long-duration robotic mission. This robot will be a rover, and we want to make it a sample-return mission. We are going to do our best to realize these plans.
The Ministry of Defense last year said that it wanted to develop a series of military space technologies, including early warning sensors for missile detection. With the change of administration, what is the DPJ’s stance on military space, and its priorities?
Regarding defense and space, even though there has been a change of administration, Japan’s fundamental stance has not changed. Our wish is to promote the policies of the prior administration. For example, regarding the construction of a ballistic missile defense system, we want to keep on developing this solidly. We have two systems, the Standard Missile-3-based system that intercepts missiles in their midcourse phase, and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system that intercepts missiles in their terminal phase. Japan is in the situation where it still needs to rely on the U.S. for any intelligence, especially shared early warning. It is indispensable to enhancing ballistic missile defense capability through Japanese-U.S. security arrangements. It is also essential for Japan to improve its information-gathering capability and, moreover, to get to the stage where we can also supply more information to the U.S. within the alliance.