• Compiled from AP, Kyodo

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Japan expressed shock Sunday at the loss of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia as officials scrambled to assess the impact on Tokyo’s own space program, jointly conducted with the United States.

The accident will immediately affect Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who was to fly on NASA’s next shuttle mission, planned for March 1.

U.S. officials said all shuttle flights will be suspended during the investigation.

The Columbia disintegrated over Texas Saturday during its return to Earth, killing six Americans and Israel’s first astronaut.

“I pray for the crew members, who accomplished their mission courageously for the development of all mankind,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.

Japanese officials on Sunday formed a panel of experts to assess the cause of the accident and its impact on Japan’s space program.

“The shuttle was getting old,” said Mamoru Mohri, Japan’s first astronaut, who flew on the Endeavour shuttle in 1992. Heat and stress on the 22-year-old Columbia during re-entry into the atmosphere might have triggered its breakup, he said.

Mohri was a classmate of three of the seven crew members.

“I know all of them well. I was in the same training program with the pilot and two members involved in experiments in space,” a visibly pained Mohri said in an early morning news conference at the headquarters of the National Space Development Agency of Japan in Tokyo.

An accident occurring at the re-entry stage comes as a particular shock, Mohri said, as U.S. space shuttle missions have successfully completed more than 100 computer-controlled re-entries.

Japan’s plan is to launch the experimental module “Kibo” (Hope) on board a U.S. space shuttle in 2007 and to dock it with the space station.

Yasunori Matogawa, a professor of system engineering at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said that while the incident has no direct relation to Japan’s rocket development program, it will have an impact on the nation’s space development as a whole.

U.S. space shuttles have carried four Japanese astronauts into space, where they conducted medical and biological experiments on seven previous flights.

A Japanese experiment on the swimming patterns of tiny “medaka” fish in zero gravity was one of Columbia’s 80 scientific projects.

The accident will also affect Japan’s contribution of modules to the International Space Station and other space projects.

“At a minimum, shipment of our module to the United States, which was planned for March, will have to be postponed now,” said NASDA spokesman Tadayuki Kawai.

“We don’t know how the accident may affect our projects in the longer term.”

Japan has been building five major components for the space station, including an external robotic arm and a medical lab.

The space station is a joint project by the United States, Russia, the European Union, Canada and Japan. It is expected to be fully operational between 2008 and 2010.

Japan, which has committed 325 billion yen, or one-fifth of the program’s cost, is the second-largest source of funds after the United States.

“I’m so shocked . . . I was looking forward to learning more about the space experiment,” Keisuke Kambara, a student participant in the Columbia fish experiment, told NHK. “I didn’t know it was so dangerous to be in space.”

The first female Japanese astronaut, Chiaki Mukai, was part of a Columbia mission in 1994. She was part of the team responsible for the fish project, which the current team says has resulted in hatched eggs.

Another Japanese, Takao Doi, flew on the Columbia in 1997.

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