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Tokyo looks to the heavens forits space programs

Japan, worried it will lag further behind in the space race, is contemplating manned rocket flights 20 or 30 years from now, government sources say.

They said the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology wants to recover some of the nation’s prestige as an industrialized, technologically capable nation.

The ministry’s Space Activities Commission plans to release by March a report calling for a feasibility study into manned space flight.

The central government currently budgets about 290 billion yen annually for space-related projects. In contrast, the United States earmarks more than 3 trillion yen for combined space-related budgets of NASA and the Pentagon.

Ministry officials say the space program is crucial to the nation’s standing in the world.

“Japan will become a loser in all fields of science and technology if we lag further behind,” said a ministry source. “Because it is difficult to raise the budget drastically, we want to focus on specific fields.”

Japan’s space program is divided between three independent bodies-the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL) and the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS).

Critics say the program is inefficient and uncoordinated. But with a planned consolidation of the three entities in fiscal 2003, the space program will be redesigned and manned space flight will feature prominently, the sources said.

NASDA is currently developing the H2A rocket to give Japan a national satellite-launch capability. The ministry is also eyeing the development of reusable spacecraft, such as the space shuttle, and believes the technology could be expanded to manned spaceflight, according to sources.

The ministry sources said it would take between 20 and 30 years for Japanese scientists to develop manned spaceflight.

Members of the Space Activities Commission also envisage a market in the near future for space travel by private citizens, the sources said.