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Japan’s space agency has decided it will not allow any Japanese astronauts to participate in space shuttle missions until it has determined them to be safe, officials said Tuesday.

Astronaut Soichi Noguchi had been scheduled to fly on NASA’s next shuttle mission to the space station on March 1, which has been put on hold because of Saturday’s fatal Columbia accident.

But Yoshihiro Nakamura, a spokesman for the National Space Development Agency of Japan, said Japanese astronauts will not take part in shuttle missions until their safety has been determined.

Nakamura said Japan will decide what to do after hearing the results of NASA’s investigation into the Columbia accident.

“We will hear NASA’s explanation, then will make our decision,” he said.

Columbia disintegrated over the U.S. state of Texas as it re-entered the atmosphere Saturday, killing all on board — six Americans and Israel’s first astronaut.

Japan has no manned space program of its own but is a backer of the International Space Station project. Tokyo has committed 325 billion yen — or one-fifth the cost — to the program and is the second-largest contributor of funds after the United States.

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

Along with Noguchi’s flight on the shuttle Atlantis, Japan had hoped to use a shuttle to take a module to the station in 2006.

While those plans have been thrown into doubt by the space shuttles’ delayed schedule, the Columbia accident hasn’t completely undermined Japanese trust in the U.S. shuttle program, said Masakazu Iguchi, head of a government committee evaluating shuttle safety.

“The United States has made successful shuttle flights over one hundred times,” Iguchi said. “I still believe that the shuttles are properly designed.”

Noguchi, 37, would have been the fifth Japanese to ride a shuttle into space. The first was Mamoru Mori in 1992.

Noguchi, who was in the United States when the accident occurred, had no immediate comment on the delay. But he expressed his sadness at the death of his colleagues in a statement released by Japan’s space agency on Sunday.

“The mission had been going so well I couldn’t believe the news when I first heard it,” he said. “I pray for their souls.”

Kibo shipment delay

The scheduled shipment of the experimental space module Kibo (Hope) to the United States in March may be delayed as a result of the loss of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, science minister Atsuko Toyama hinted Tuesday.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, even if it were sent,” Toyama, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, told a news conference. “We will decide eventually in consultation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

Japan had planned to ship the experimental module in March. It was slated to be launched aboard a space shuttle in 2006 and then attached to the International Space Station.

Toyama also said 16 participating countries in the space station project will meet in the near future. She did not elaborate.

Ministry officials predicted that a preliminary meeting of the governments and space agencies of the participating countries may take place this month, ahead of planned high-level consultations in Washington in March.

U.S. space shuttles are the main vehicles for ferrying astronauts and equipment to the space station.

The Columbia broke up and disintegrated Saturday upon re-entry while on course to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, following a 16-day space mission. Its seven-member crew perished.

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