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Japan moves ahead with plans to join U.S.-led project to build space station orbiting moon

Kyodo, Bloomberg

The government on Tuesday approved a plan to join a U.S.-proposed project to build a new space station orbiting the moon, hoping for a chance to send Japanese astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time.

The move comes amid lingering doubts over U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposal, which did not detail how it would fund the push to return astronauts to the moon.

Under its basic space policy road map, Japan is aiming to contribute to the U.S.-led project, expected to be completed in the latter half of the 2020s, by providing an unmanned cargo ship and technology that prevents space radiation from harming astronauts.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting of the government’s strategic headquarters for space policy, which he chairs, that Japan would “accelerate discussions of international space exploration by strengthening cooperation with the U.S. and others.”

Japan endorsed the plan after Abe and Trump agreed during their November summit talks to promote collaboration in space exploration. Tokyo is also aiming to maintain a strong voice in the field of space development.

The United States plans to utilize the envisioned moon-orbiting space station as a base to explore the lunar surface and Mars.

On Monday, Trump instructed NASA to send astronauts back to the moon in an effort to lay a foundation for a manned mission to the red planet.

“This is a giant step toward that inspiring future and toward reclaiming America’s proud destiny in space,” Trump said at a White House ceremony, where he signed the new NASA directive. “And space has to do with so many other applications, including a military application. So we are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader and we’re going to increase it many fold.”

Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement that the new policy reflects recommendations from the National Space Council, a White House advisory panel Trump appointed earlier in the year.

The White House didn’t provide details about how NASA’s work to return to the moon would be funded, or whether any current programs would be cut.

“This is the first step in a very long process,” John Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in an interview. “The crucial next step is: Is there money for returning to the moon in the budget? It’s been 45 years since we’ve been to the moon, and a lot of people have a lot of ideas.”

Marco Caceres, a space analyst with defense and aerospace consulting firm Teal Group, said “there’s not a lot of meat on” presidential directives to NASA, given that they haven’t been accompanied with specific funding proposals since the Apollo era, when America was racing to beat the Soviet Union in space.

“I don’t think simply an order to NASA is going to do anything unless it is accompanied by a notable increase of NASA’s budget, and by notable I mean a doubling or a tripling or a quadrupling of NASA’s budget,” Caceres said.