China’s successful launching last week of its second manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 6, coming just two years after its historic first flight, demonstrates that the country’s space program is making steady progress. China’s goal, obviously, is to become a “space power.”

In contrast, Japan’s manned space program faces uncertain prospects, due largely to the downsizing of the International Space Station (ISS) project. The nation has yet to establish a long-term program.

Of course, there is a big difference in the two countries’ space programs. While China is pushing its space program as an integral part of its military-technology development, Japan is internationally committed to the peaceful use of space. It is hoped, nevertheless, that China’s latest launch will stimulate public debate in this country on how to develop its space program.

In 1992, China formally decided to launch a human into orbit as a national project. In 1999, based on Soyuz technologies introduced from the former Soviet Union, China launched an experimental unmanned spacecraft and, in 2003, following a series of successful experimental flights, completed its first manned mission.

Shenzhou 5, which carried one astronaut, returned safely after a flight of about 21 hours. The Shenzhou 6, carrying two astronauts, orbited the Earth for five days and returned safely on Monday.

China is the third country to make a manned flight on its own, but both the United States and Russia have more advanced space-related technologies. Still, China’s latest mission is a tribute to its capability in conducting a manned space program — which demands a very high degree of reliability — according to plan.

The Chinese reportedly plan to complete, by around 2008, large rockets needed for the construction of a space station. They also aim to carry out a moon exploration program by around 2017.

China’s space program is intertwined with military technologies, such as those related to missiles. A major purpose of its manned space program is to enhance national prestige and inspire patriotism among its people. In a way, the Chinese are where the Americans were in the 1960s when the Apollo program got under way.

To children especially, astronauts are heroes, and such spectacular missions tend to boost educational interest in science and technology. China may be no exception. In Japan, though, schoolchildren are said to be losing interest in science.

Japan’s manned space program is in a precarious state. In September, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) decided to limit its number of future shuttle flights to 18 at the maximum; the shuttle is scheduled to stop flying in 2010. NASA says Japan’s experimental wing of the ISS will be launched as scheduled, but the plan may go awry if the shuttle develops technical problems.

Under present policy, a manned flight by Japan depends on the U.S. shuttle, and the necessary technology for the program must be acquired at the ISS. This means that if the U.S. changes its program, Japan will have to change its program as well. Japan should strive to avoid placing itself in this kind of situation.

The Japan Aerospace Development Agency, in its “long-term vision,” says the nation would launch its own manned spacecraft, using its own rockets, to send humans to the moon 20 years from now. This, however, does not represent an official government strategy.

Space programs vary greatly and goals are set according to priorities. China, for one, places priority on independently carrying out manned flights. Other programs emphasize the launching of observatory satellites to monitor the Earth’s environment and scientific satellites to explore celestial bodies. Still others seek to boost national security. Some focus on all these objectives.

The question for Japan is how best to promote its space program within the framework of its peaceful principles. There are various options, and each has merits and demerits. There are also financial questions to be addressed, such as how much money Japan should spend in this field of national endeavor.

First of all, information on these and other relevant matters should be made public. And on the basis of such information, a comprehensive debate should be conducted to map out a broad program that promotes the interests of both Japan and the international community.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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