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The U.S. space shuttle Discovery carrying its crew of seven docked with the International Space Station on Wednesday morning, Japan time. Among the crew is Japanese astronaut Mr. Koichi Wakata. While the Discovery is docked at the ISS, he will set up the ISS’ fourth and last solar power panel by using a robotic arm.

Mr. Wakata, now on his third space mission, will stay in the ISS together with a U.S. and a Russian astronaut for about 3 1/2 months — the first “long” stay in the ISS for a Japanese astronaut. He will build up and maintain the Japanese space lab Kibo attached to the ISS and will carry out various experiments, including a test to measure the efficacy of a drug to prevent osteoporosis.

Although Mr. Wakata’s activities represent the start of a new era of a manned space project involving Japanese, Japan has to decide which direction its future space development projects should take.

The United States plays a leading role in the ISS project. Construction started in 1998, is now about 80 percent complete and will be finished in 2010. Although it will be in operation through 2015, what to do with it in and after 2016 has not yet been decided. Japan has to spend ¥40 billion yearly if the ISS project continues.

To build the Kibo space lab, Japan spent ¥550 billion over 20 years since fiscal 1987. If the costs related to space shuttles and experiments in outer space are included, total spending has reached ¥680 billion. Future activities will push up total spending to near ¥1 trillion.

The government’s space development headquarters also has an idea of sending a robot to the Moon by 2020 and an astronaut to it by 2030. If Japan develops its own rocket and spaceship, the cost will reach several trillion yen.

But is it really worthwhile to spend such a large amount of money on this? As Japan’s birthrate drops, the pool of science researchers will dwindle. Unmanned space missions could produce valuable scientific discoveries at relatively low costs and without human risk. The government could be better off concentrating on unmanned scientific observations of the Earth and outer space, including unmanned missions to planets.

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