Japanese astronaut to make history on NASA's future lunar mission

Washington DC - A lucky Japanese astronaut will become the first non-American to set foot on the Moon during one of NASA's upcoming Artemis missions, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday.

A Japanese national will become the first non-American to set foot on the Moon, President Joe Biden promised on Wednesday.
A Japanese national will become the first non-American to set foot on the Moon, President Joe Biden promised on Wednesday.  © Collage: Jim WATSON & Mark Felix / AFP

The offer to Japan – an opportunity many nations have long dreamed of – came as part of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's state visit, and as Washington seeks to strengthen ties with its key Asian ally.

"Two Japanese astronauts will join future American missions, and one will become the first non-American ever to land on the Moon," Joe Biden said in a press conference with Kishida.

Kishida hailed the announcement as a "huge achievement" and announced that Japan would in return supply a rover for the program.

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NASA's Artemis program seeks to return humans to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years, and to build a sustained lunar presence ahead of potential missions to Mars.

Between 1969 and 1972, the US Apollo program saw 12 Americans – all white men – walk on the Moon.

NASA previously announced that the Artemis program would see the first woman and the first person of color land on the Moon.

"America will no longer walk on the Moon alone," NASA chief Bill Nelson said in a video published on social media. "Diplomacy is good for discovery. And discovery is good for diplomacy."

Japanese space exploration on the rise

Candidates for NASA's Artemis lunar mission, which is set to take off in 2026, celebrate graduating in March 2024.
Candidates for NASA's Artemis lunar mission, which is set to take off in 2026, celebrate graduating in March 2024.  © Mark Felix / AFP

The first mission to take astronauts to the lunar surface, Artemis 3, is planned for 2026. China meanwhile has said it seeks to put humans on the Moon by 2030.

Japan's space agency JAXA is "extremely happy" about the announcement, a spokesman told AFP.

"We will do our best to implement the agreement," including developing the rover for the program, he said.

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Tokyo and Washington have worked together in the space sector for years, notably collaborating on operations at the International Space Station (ISS).

And this year, Japan became the fifth country to succeed in landing a spacecraft on the Moon, with its SLIM craft touching down in January.

Japanese lunar rover to be used in future lunar missions

In a joint media release, the US and Japan clarified that a Japanese national would land on the Moon "assuming important benchmarks are achieved," without clarifying further.

The lunar rover provided by Japan in return will be pressurized, meaning astronauts can travel farther and work for longer periods on the lunar surface, according to the statement.

It added that the pressurized rover will accommodate two astronauts in the "mobile habitat and laboratory" for up to 30 days as they explore the area near the lunar South Pole.

NASA currently plans to use the rover on the future Artemis 7 mission, followed by subsequent missions over a 10-year lifespan.

Cover photo: Collage: Jim WATSON & Mark Felix / AFP

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