This spring, NASA announced its plan for the new crew-tended cislunar space station named “Deep Space Gateway (DSG),” the first project of its kind since the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s. The plan is to use SLS rocket to launch the Orion spacecraft and to build a spaceport in lunar orbit, where a crew of four astronauts will be staying for 15 to 90 days each year.
It will be the second crew-tended space station after the International Space Station (ISS). By accumulating required technologies through international cooperation, NASA aims to use it as a transit spaceport for making crewed mission to Mars a reality by the 2030s. The gravitational force is weaker in the lunar orbit, allowing the spacecraft to save fuel when leaving for Mars.
The US has been considering lunar surface operations and asteroid exploration for over a decade, but all past projects had been unsuccessful and called off. This time, the plan is to continue with the development of SLS and Orion and to apply asteroid exploration technology for the space station’s propulsion system, which is more or less the same as the conventional project plans in the past.
A Project of Compromises
Junya Terazono, an associate professor at the University of Aizu and an expert on space exploration, said: “If the projects are cancelled and the past work is wiped clean to start afresh, it will lower the morale of scientists and engineers. It seems like the plan was made in considerable compromise so as not to waste the past work people have put time and effort in.”
He says that using Orion as a transit spaceport for Mission Mars does not quite make sense. The distance from the Earth to Mars is over 50 million km, and building a spaceport only 380,000 km from the Earth will not make a difference.
Despite the size of this project, the information released by NASA is limited. NASA seems to be taking cautious steps in handling information because the Trump regime is unclear and uncertain about its space policies and priorities. The National Space Council, for instance, was re-established in July after being inactive for 25 years.
In June, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency announced its intention to participate in this program, with the aim of having the first Moon landing by a Japanese astronaut. Naoki Sato, the Technology Directorate at JAXA, said: “Demonstrating the presence of Japan at the forefront of space exploration is the best and the most important thing to do. Advancing in space exploration is our right and our obligation as citizens of a nation built on science and technology.”
According to the program, it is still unclear whether the astronauts will land on the Moon. However, it will be a historic step forward for Japan if it became a reality. Water and resources from the Moon’s surface may potentially be used for fuel and materials to build the space station.
JAXA plans to lead the development of manned landing aircraft using the technology used for unmanned lunar landing aircraft SLIM, which will be launched in 2019. They hope to build factories where water on the Moon’s surface are broken down to create hydrogen that can be used as fuel and develop technologies to purify drinking water and air at the space station.
They hope that by contributing to NASA’s new project by providing these factories and technologies, they will win a ticket to realize their dream: the lunar landing.
The Cost Burden
NASA has requested JAXA to build habitation modules on the new lunar space station, and the expectation is high. However, nothing has been decided on Japan’s participation. The focus will be on how far the discussion will progress toward the “International Space Exploration Forum” organized by Japan in March 2018. This has caught the interest of Europe, which also plans to build habitation modules on the Moon.
The problem is the cost. The total cost of the project is expected to reach 10 trillion yen and each country will be required to pay its share. Japan is investing 40 billion yen every year on ISS-related matters already, and increasing this amount looks difficult.
“In Japan, too much emphasis has been put on the glamorous side of space development, such as the achievements accomplished by the astronauts, while important discussions have been avoided,” Terazono pointed out.
Nationwide discussions and agreements, he said, are essential in order to participate in something like this project, that will remain in the history of mankind.
Astronaut Kimiya Yui in His Own Words
I welcome our aim to achieve the construction of habitation modules and lunar landing of Japanese astronauts, even if it is still undecided, because the aim allows us astronauts to set new goals and to gives us ideas about what skills we are required in the future.
Japan, which has played a part in the ISS, will be given an important job. If landing aircraft is to be made in Japan, trainings will be held in Japan and the first person to ride the aircraft will be a Japanese. Let’s aim for that. We can contribute by providing transportation and life-support related equipment from technology we have acquired from Kounotori, the space station supply ship. By fulfilling our responsibilities, we can land on the Moon, on Mars. I hope that this can be something the people of Japan can be proud of.
I want to land on the Moon. I’ve told my father and my wife. Mankind has developed by aiming “higher and farther.” I hope to be a pioneer to strive for a bright future.
Takeo Kusaka is a senior staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun Science News department
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)