Getting back into space has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, especially world leaders. At a joint press conference in Tokyo earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump agreed to further cooperate in space exploration, which might include sending Japanese astronauts to the moon.
During the press conference, Trump said, “I am pleased to confirm that Prime Minister Abe and I have agreed to dramatically expand our nations’ cooperation in human space exploration. Japan will join our mission to send U.S. astronauts to space. We’ll be going to the moon. We’ll be going to Mars very soon. It’s very exciting.”
A fact sheet released by the State Department noted that the two leaders “agreed on the importance of a sustained human presence on and around the Moon. Building on its International Space Station experience, Japanese astronauts will strive to join American astronauts on the Moon and destinations beyond.”
NASA is accelerating their plans to put people on the moon’s surface by 2028, setting the new goal to 2024. The major roles for NASA’s international partners will largely be deferred to the second phase, focusing on establishing a sustainable human presence after the 2024 landing. The contributions for the partners would include Gateway Modules, which give countries slots on lunar landing missions similar to the way ISS partners get crew slot on the space station.
Ken Bowersox, the deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA said during an advisory council committee meeting, “Accelerating the landing date to 2024 makes it harder for us to incorporate our international partners early. We’re still looking at working with our international partners. A lot of their elements were going to come after 2024 anyway.” Bowersox added that if international partners accelerate their contributions, they’re welcome to participate in the early phases.
One of the Japanese companies looking forward to this further cooperation with the US is iSpace, which develops commercial lunar landers as part of a team led by an American company called Draper. Draper won one of nine commercial lunar payload service agreements from NASA last year to transport payloads to the surface of the moon. In a statement to SpaceNews, iSpace founder Takeshi Hakamada said, “We are thrilled to learn that the U.S. and Japan will deepen its strong relationship in space exploration through a focused effort on lunar exploration. Alongside our American partner, Draper, iSpace is well prepared and eager to support this new endeavor between the U.S. and Japan.”
Though the accelerated plan seems ambitious, much of the equipment and hardware needed for the project are already in development or will be soon. Lucky for NASA, there are a number of companies with ideas for developing lunar landers. Earlier this month, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin showed off their Blue Moon lunar lander in its current iteration. Blue Moon can carry three point six metric tons to the moon using a new rocket engine Blue Origin is developing that’s powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. In April, Lockheed Martin showed their concepts for lunar landers, which differed from their original lander idea. The original design was a giant single-stage reusable lander that could operate for two weeks on the moon’s surface and carry four people. Moving the deadline to 2024 forced the company to table that ambitious design for a smaller two-stage lander that could be built more quickly. The deadline shift also changed the various companies roles in the development of the landers. Before, the different companies would develop the three separate elements of the lander, the overall architecture, and integration of the components would be overseen by NASA. The new deadline puts less control in the hands of NASA and puts more of the responsibility on the companies. This gives the companies more flexibility in alternative approaches, rather than the original three-stage concept by NASA. This changes things, but it will be interesting to watch how the companies rise to the challenge. We plan on continuing our coverage on space, from the satellites orbiting our planet, to the exploration of our solar system and beyond, so stay tuned for more videos.