Japan sets sights on manned moon base

Joining a swelling group of countries shooting for the moon, Japan is considering a plan to establish a manned lunar base by 2025, officials said today.

Officials at Japan’s space agency, JAXA, confirmed the mission was under consideration, but said the plan is still being fleshed out and has yet to be formally accepted.

A report outlining the plan is expected to be submitted to the government later this month or in early April.

“The building of a manned moon base is part of our long-term plan, looking to about 20 years from now,” said Hisashi Dobashi, a JAXA official.

“We believe if we keep developing our technologies, a manned space mission will be possible.”

If approved, the mission would mark a major change of direction for Japan’s space programme, which has for decades focused on unmanned, scientific probes.

It would also up the ante in an increasingly heated space race in Asia. Both China and India have announced moon missions, and US President George W Bush has proclaimed that the United States will return to the moon in the next decade or so and will try to send astronauts to Mars as well.

Dobashi refused to discuss details of the plan, which would require a huge influx of funds. JAXA now has a yearly budget of about $2bn (€1.5bn) - compared with NASA’s $16.2bn (€12.3bn).

According to a Japanese newspaper report, JAXA hopes to develop a robot to conduct probes on the moon by 2010, then begin constructing a solar-powered manned research base on the moon and design a reusable manned space vessel like the US space shuttle by 2025.

Long Asia’s leading spacefaring nation, Japan has lately been struggling to get out from under the shadow of China, which put its first astronaut into orbit in October 2003, a feat Japan has yet to accomplish.

Beijing has since announced it is aiming to put a man on the moon. India said last year it would send a manned mission to the moon by 2015, but is reconsidering that project because of the high cost. Officials say an unmanned mission is still in the works, however.

Japan’s space programme has been plagued by failures in recent years.

One month after China’s first manned mission, a Japanese H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites malfunctioned after lift-off, forcing controllers to end its mission in a spectacular fireball. Further launches were put on hold for 15 months.

But on Saturday, Japan took a big step toward re-establishing the credibility of its space programme with the successful launch of an H-2A rocket that placed a communications and navigation satellite into orbit.

Experts said concern over being left in China’s shadow has been a factor in Japan’s new focus on starting up a manned programme of its own.


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