On Sunday the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the International Space Station, orbiting at 400 km above Earth. It carried 3.6 tons of food and other supplies for six months’ use by the ISS occupants.

After the shuttle crew spends about a week in the ISS, it will return to Earth on the final mission of the 30-year space shuttle program. Since 1981, NASA’s five space shuttles have taken 355 astronauts into space on 135 missions — or 847 astronauts if astronauts on repeat trips are counted. The shuttles have ferried some 70 percent of people who have been to space.

In 1992, Mr. Mamoru Mori became the first Japanese to board a space shuttle, followed by six others. The space shuttle program ends 50 years after Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first human to fly in space in 1961.

This marks a turning point not only for the United States but also for Japan, which relied on the space shuttles for manned space flights.

NASA initially planned to launch space shuttles 50 times a year, with the cost of each launch estimated at $50 million. But the cost has climbed to about $1 billion. In recent years, there were only three to five space shuttle launches a year. One of the factors behind the cost rise was safety measures taken after two space shuttle tragedies.

The Challenger crashed 73 seconds after a launch in 1986 and the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003. The two disasters killed a total of 14 astronauts.

In 2010, the U.S. President Barack Obama announced a plan to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to orbit Mars by the middle of the 2030s. But the U.S. has no concrete prospect of developing rockets needed for these missions.

From now on, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which can carry only three persons, will be the only means of ferrying astronauts to the ISS, which will be operated until around 2020. Japan has already spent ¥710 billion through 2010 for the ISS-related projects and will have to spend ¥40 billion a year in and after 2011.

In view of costs vs. benefits of participating in the ISS project and of Japan’s achievements with unmanned space explorers, Japan should seriously consider withdrawing from the ISS project.

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