The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has chosen a surgeon and a World Bank staffer from over 4,000 applicants to become its new astronaut candidates amid plans to join NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration mission.
The two candidates are Makoto Suwa, 46, a disaster prevention specialist at the World Bank, and Ayu Yoneda, 28, a surgeon at the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, JAXA said on Tuesday.
Suwa and Yoneda became JAXA’s first new astronaut candidates since 2009, when the agency recruited two candidates for International Space Station (ISS) missions. They will be joining JAXA next month.
Both candidates will undergo two years of training before being evaluated for certification as JAXA astronauts. They can then participate in the ISS missions and NASA’s lunar exploration program, the agency said.
“I don’t think the path ahead will be easy, but I hope to go to the moon if possible,” Yoneda was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
Yoneda is the youngest candidate selected by JAXA, while Suwa is the oldest. According to local reports, the average age of JAXA’s existing astronauts is 52 to 53 years old, and the retirement age is 60.
JAXA reopened astronaut recruitment in 2021 to revive its pool of aging astronauts. It received 4,127 applications, four times the number of applications received last time, after easing the criteria to welcome applicants without college degrees.
Japanese Astronaut to Join NASA’s Artemis Mission
President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced last May that a Japanese astronaut would board NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon as part of their efforts to expand U.S.-Japan civil space cooperation.
Biden said the partners are committed to sending a Japanese astronaut to the Gateway Station, a planned international space station that would orbit the moon.
“I’m excited at the work we will do together on the Gateway Station around the moon, and I look forward to the first Japanese astronaut joining us on the mission to the lunar surface under the Artemis program,” Biden said.
NASA said in a statement that Washington and Japan would formalize the Japanese astronaut’s inclusion on the Gateway project by the end of 2022.
The move is aligned with Japan’s goal of sending one of its astronauts to the lunar surface—the first non-American—in the latter half of the 2020s as part of NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon.
Japan has an extensive space program, mainly focused on developing launchers and space probes. But it doesn’t have a human flight program and has relied on the United States and Russia to carry its astronauts into space.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa became the first private passenger to visit the ISS in more than a decade after launching on a Soyuz rocket operated by Russia’s Roscosmos space agency in December 2021.
Japan’s space ambitions, and investment, are welcome by the United States as it tries to stay ahead of China in a potential new space race. Beijing sent three astronauts to make its first in-orbit crew rotation on the Tiangong space station last November.
Japan is due to help the European Space Agency build the main habitat module of the U.S.-planned orbiting lunar outpost, Gateway, that will be used in moon landings.
Japan also built the Kibo experiment module on the ISS and resupply missions have been lifted into space by its heavy launch rockets.
Reuters contributed to this report.