JAXA Pushes for Human Spaceflight Program

JAXA's proposed HT-R vehicle would return cargo and launch crews. (Credit: JAXA)

Spaceflight Now reports that JAXA is pushing for a human spaceflight program that would place a return capsule on its HTV freighter:

If approved by the Japanese government, the craft’s development would follow a crawl-walk-run approach. Japan has already demonstrated its H-2 Transfer Vehicle can haul cargo and experiments to the space station, and next up could be developing a return capsule to bring equipment from the outpost back to Earth.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency plans to fly seven HTVs in support of the space station through 2016. Two Japanese cargo freighters successfully flew in 2009 and 2011, and five more are due to launch at a rate of one per year.

JAXA’s leadership is openly pitching the HTV as the foundation of a manned spacecraft, which could fly Japanese crews as soon as 2025. But the idea requires approval by Japanese lawmakers and the endorsement of the government agency in charge of JAXA….

Japan is targeting fiscal year 2017, which ends in March 2018 in Japan, for the first flight of the HTV-R craft, which will bring back up to 3,500 pounds of cargo in a pressurized capsule on each mission.

Flying humans in 2025 isn’t very ambitious, although that could be a function of the expected funding profile. There are three main things they need: a capsule, an escape system, and a human-rated booster. All those technologies will probably be available commercially in the United States within the next five years.

I don’t know what the technical issues are, but it might be possible to place a Boeing CST-100, SpaceX Dragon, or Blue Origin orbiter atop the HTV service module. That would solve two of the problems. ULA is developing human-rating technology for the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters.

If JAXA puts the project out to competitive bidding, Boeing Japan might end up making a proposal based on the CST-100 vehicle. The US subsidiary of Excalibur Almaz has put in a similar proposal to NASA based on old Soviet space technology it owns.

I see this as a win-win-win all around. These companies need more customers to make their commercial spacecraft viable. NASA would benefit from a more stable industry, limiting the chance of having to bail out companies. (Congress would like that, too.) And the Japanese wouldn’t spend 12 years and billions of yen re-inventing something they can buy commercially. This would be a major step toward selling human spacecraft in the same way that Boeing and Airbus sell aircraft.

Of course, JAXA might not want to rely upon foreign technology, preferring to develop its own. And there are U.S. export laws that could block tech transfers.