• Kyodo

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Japan will recruit a group of potential astronauts in 2021 with an eye on sending them to outer space as part of a U.S.-led lunar exploration project, the first time the nation has conducted an intake since 2008, the science minister said Friday.

Minister Koichi Hagiuda said in a news conference the government will ask for applications around next fall, with Tokyo aiming to have a Japanese national on the moon for the first time in the latter half of the 2020s.

Although Japan has recruited talent in the field approximately every decade or so since 1983, the education, culture, sports, science and technology minister said, “We will solicit applications around every five years from now on to maintain a group of astronauts (in readiness).”

As part of the Artemis program, the United States is aiming to send humans to the moon by 2024 for the first time since the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

In July, Tokyo and Washington agreed to cooperate on lunar exploration, led by NASA. The two countries aim to provide Japanese crew with opportunities on the Gateway, a small spaceship that will orbit the moon, and to journey to the lunar surface.

Earlier this month, Japan also joined a U.S.-led international agreement, called the Artemis Accords, which seeks to establish a set of principles for space exploration, including lunar resource extraction.

Currently, seven Japanese astronauts are part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

When the agency last conducted an astronaut search in 2008, a record 963 people applied for the job. Kimiya Yui, 50, and Takuya Onishi, 44, were selected in February 2009 and Norishige Kanai, 43, was picked in September that year.

The three men have already traveled to outer space.

In the near future, veteran astronaut Soichi Noguchi, 55, is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft developed by U.S. aerospace manufacturer SpaceX.

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which will carry Noguchi and three American astronauts to the ISS, has been postponed from Oct. 31 to “no sooner than early-to-mid November” due to additional checks on the rocket, according to NASA.

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