Economy, No.2  Sept. 29, 2010


The International Space Station is a joint multinational project involving 15 countries: Japan, the United States, 11 European nations, Canada, and Russia. It entails the construction of an enormous facility, roughly the size of a soccer stadium, that will orbit the Earth at an altitude of around 400 kilometers and weigh approximately 420 tons in total. The space station will normally be inhabited by six astronauts, who will carry out various scientific experiments and tests of technologies, in addition to observing the Earth and outer space. A massive sum of upwards of ¥8 trillion (excluding Russia’s expenditures) has been invested in the ISS by the US, European, and Japanese partners since its construction began in 1998. This can truly be described as a colossal scientific project on a scale unprecedented in human history.

In 1987 Japan decided to participate in the ISS project through the Japanese Experimental Module, nicknamed Kibō (meaning “hope” in Japanese). Research on the development and operations of Kibō has been handled by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. JAXA is also in charge of the H-II Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned spacecraft to resupply the ISS with provisions. And JAXA developed the Centrifuge Accommodations Module as well to conduct biological research, but a change in plans on the part of the United States kept it from being launched into orbit.

Despite the twists and turns in the ISS project along the way, including a major redesign and the addition of Russian participation, the facility is finally nearing completion, coinciding with the retirement of the Space Shuttle this year. A quarter of a century has in fact elapsed since the idea for the ISS was unveiled.

Cold War Symbol

Development of the ISS project began in January 1984, in the midst of the Cold War that pitted the United States and Soviet Union against each other in fierce competition. President Ronald Reagan, in his State of the Union address at the time, announced the idea of constructing an enormous manned space station through international cooperation as the next space exploration program after the plans for the Space Shuttle. Japan answered this call for participation among the leading US allies, deciding in 1987 to join the project. And in 1989 Japan became one of the official participating nations, upon the ratification of an intergovernmental agreement on space station cooperation.

When the Soviet Union later collapsed, bringing the Cold War to an end, Russia became a new member of the ISS project. This move was a result of budgetary difficulties in the United States and its government’s concern that sensitive technologies might flow out of post-Soviet Russia. The addition of a Russian module to the ISS led the development plans to be altered. After adjusting to this change, the first ISS module, Zarya (functional cargo block), was launched on November 20, 1998. Since 2000, astronauts have been regularly staying on board the ISS, and participating countries have been steadily launching additional modules for the space station, which is expected to finally reach completion this autumn.

Yet the path leading up to completion has not, by any means, been a smooth one. The disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia upon reentry in February 2003 led the ISS project to come under reconsideration. President George W. Bush announced in 2004 that the Space Shuttle would be retired by 2010 and that the ISS would be quietly phased out; instead the United States would aim to put people on the Moon again from 2015 on and build a settlement there to serve as a base for activities, including human missions to Mars. Under the current Barack Obama administration, however, the idea of a human mission to the Moon has been rejected in favor of the idea, proposed recently, of focusing for now on the activities of the ISS and calling on participating countries to extend the facility’s use until 2020.

In the roughly 20 years since the start of the project, Japan has invested around ¥710 billion in the ISS. Its investment mainly went to the development of Kibō and Earth-based facilities, as well as costs for launching the Space Shuttle. The development of Kibō, which is currently in use, has reached completion, but its annual operational costs are estimated to be ¥40 billion. This will likely bring Japan’s overall ISS expenditures to ¥900 billion by 2015.

The United States, for its part, has invested nearly ¥8.5 trillion in the ISS up to now, and plans call for that figure to become even more enormous with the addition of ¥2 trillion in expenditures up to 2015. In line with its level of investment, Japan is entitled to a 12.8% share of utilizing the ISS for a variety of research and development activities.

Return on Japan’s Investment

What does Japan get in return for its expenditure of ¥40 billion a year for a space station that has only just become fully operational? Here we will take a closer look at this issue.

First of all, Japan’s work on the ISS over the past 20 years has allowed it to develop to completion numerous space technologies. Japan has been able to obtain not only the sort of systems engineering and safety management technologies needed for large-scale development, but also life-support technologies necessary for human beings to live in space (such as air recycling), techniques for training astronauts, and technologies to reliably deliver supplies to a space station.

After the US Space Shuttle is retired from use at the end of 2010, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle will come to play a vital role for resupplying the ISS. The participating countries will be counting on the HTV because it is the only space vehicle at present capable of transporting supplies and large experimental devices to the ISS.

The benefits of the communication system technology (developed by Mitsubishi Electric) to carry out docking are already becoming clear now that components developed using that technology have been purchased for ¥6 billion by the US-based company Orbital Sciences Corp. Five Japanese astronauts have also visited the ISS thus far, including two (Wakata Kōichi and Noguchi Sōichi) who have stayed aboard for an extended period of around half a year.

In terms of scientific research on the ISS, some 20 experimental topics are dealt with each year in areas that include microgravity science (looking at how objects move under diffusion control when freed from gravity to the utmost or on how materials behave under conditions free of suspended sedimentation because differences in specific gravity are negligible), life sciences (such as research on proteins), and space medicine (research on the changes human beings undergo in outer space). Vigorous research involving the cooperation of universities and others is being carried out, and the research results are being compiled.

One direct benefit to the Japanese economy of ISS-related activities has been the steady creation of four to five thousand jobs a year (including jobs in industries outside the aerospace industry that benefit from it). There is no question that the aerospace industry, though it has a very fragile industrial base itself, is generating major benefits.

Industry officials emphasize above all that Japan’s participation in the ISS project has enhanced its ties with other leading nations and contributed greatly to improving its diplomatic standing in the world. It seems to have led to recognition of Japan as a member of what might be called the “club of world-class technology leaders.” But paying ¥40 billion a year just to have a seat at that exclusive table is too much.

Pioneering Spirit of the ISS

The day is likely to arrive at some point when humanity needs to expand the physical realm of its activities beyond planet Earth.

Human space travel moved forward during the Cold War–from the space flight of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to the US Mercury and Apollo missions–as an arena to showcase national prestige and flaunt technical prowess. Yet it is clear that a driving force behind those endeavors was also the inherent human spirit of “challenging the unknown.”

In contrast, Japan’s human space development seems to be progressing in an aimless fashion. People are well aware that Japan’s economic situation today leaves little room for spending huge sums of money on space exploration. But Japan lacks any sort of long-term vision in this area, apart from simply trailing after the United States. What seems necessary now is to devise a new outlook to break through the current impasse and move in the direction of a revitalized Japan.

Translated from “Sekai ni hokoru gijutsu o umidashita Nihon no ‘Kibō’ to ‘HTV,'” Ekonomisuto, August 24, 2010, pp. 98-99. (Courtesy of the Mainichi Newspapers) [September 2010]