JAXA and NASA astronauts, Soichi Noguchi and Mike Hopkins, prepare to head to ISS aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket [Image: Red Huber/Getty Images]

The United States and Japan Forge New Agreement on Space Exploration


The last time a human was on the Moon was December 14, 1972. The United States, Japan, and the six other signatories to the Artemis Accords hope to change that. Japan’s space agency, JAXA, recently announced a formal agreement to collaborate on the Gateway project, an important component of the Artemis mission to send men, as well as the first woman, back to the Moon and onto Mars. The Gateway is an orbiting outpost, about 1/6th the size of the International Space Station (ISS), that will serve as a long-term sustainable staging point for lunar and future Mars missions. Japan has agreed to provide important life support capabilities for the International Habitation Module (I-Hab) on the Gateway, an additional space where crew members will live, work, and conduct research during Artemis missions. Tokyo will provide this in addition to other technical supports, such as batteries for the initial Gateway crew cabin, the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), as well as a potential pressurized lunar rover that will be developed in partnership with Toyota.

This agreement represents a new phase of longstanding US-Japan cooperation on space exploration initiatives. The relationship formally began with a 1969 joint statement but accelerated in the 1980s when Japan became a founding partner for development of the ISS. Japan maintains a scientific laboratory on the US segment of the ISS — the Kibo (Hope) module, runs resupply missions using its HTV-X cargo spacecraft, and the first crew of the recent SpaceX mission included Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. To initiate this new phase, JAXA and NASA released a joint statement in 2018, “affirming their strong mutual interest in continued future cooperation in space exploration.” A Joint Declaration of Intent for Lunar Cooperation followed in July of last year, with Japan formally committing to the Artemis Accords in December of 2020 before releasing the formalized agreement on the Gateway project this month.

The United States and Japan have also committed to other areas of collaboration in space. The 7th US-Japan Comprehensive Dialogue on Space last year emphasized areas such as space security and international rule making, Earth observation, and space situational awareness (SSA) to help mitigate space traffic and deal with space debris. Moreover, the United States has pledged to launch two payloads in 2023 and 2024 to support Japan’s Quasi Zenith Satellite System, a project to enhance and provide greater stability and precision for GPS-compatible positioning services in Asia-Oceania. Japan also intends to share samples from its Hayabusa2 space probe with NASA and other international agencies. The probe recently collected dust and other material from the asteroid Ryugu, and scientists hope the samples will help shed light on the origins of the universe and formation of life on Earth.

The US-Japan alliance, representing “two of the world’s most advanced spacefaring nations,” is undoubtedly important for the future of space exploration. With Japan’s own advanced technology and 12 spacefaring astronauts thus far, it is well placed to collaborate with the United States on further endeavors. The Japan-US Aerospace Cooperation Seminar 2021 highlighted how the new agreement regarding the Gateway project, as well as the Artemis Accords, represents a harbinger of future cooperation and an exciting new step in humanity’s collective effort to sustainably advance human space exploration.

Kristin Wilson is a Research Intern and participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington.