Masami Onoda, Director of JAXA’s Washington Office, talks about “The Heat of Space Development”【Consider the Future of Earth Together with Serika Ito #11】

Even though we call “Space Development”, there are various purposes, technologies, and missions. In this series, we consider the current situation and the future of space development together with our Chief Dream Officer(CDO), Serika Ito.

The theme of this time is international cooperation. Masami Onoda, Director of JAXA’s Washington Representative Office, is our guest and discussed with Astronaut Serika.

JAXA staff working in Washington, U.S.A.

©Chuya Koyama/KODANSHA

Serika: This time I will talk to Masami Onoda of the Washington Office, who is in the United States. It’s been a while, Ms. Onoda!

Ms. Onoda: Hello, my name is Masami Onoda, and I am the Director of JAXA’s Washington Office. I took the Astronaut Selection Examination in 2008, so I have an affinity with you.

Ms. Onoda: Washington is home to NASA headquarters, and the National Space Council, which reviews U.S. space policy, is held in the Office of the President in the White House. I coordinate and collaborate with the secretariat of those organizations, space agencies, universities, and companies.

There are two aspects to the coordination. The first is how JAXA will participate in the program technically. The second is to help both sides, Japan and the United States, communicate with each other.

The U.S. space exploration program has a large budget of tens of trillions of dollars, so the administration’s directions strongly influence it. Whenever there is talk of 「going to Mars instead of to the moon」, the news spreads quickly to Japan, primarily through social networking services. This would cause the Japanese government and politicians to ask, “Is the U.S. interrupting something that Japan is trying to cooperate with?” I explain the story's background and what the U.S. government and NASA think about it.

I think this kind of communication is something we can only do when we see in person. In addition, it is impossible to have a frank conversation unless we know the other person well, so it is an important role for expatriates to build a relationship that allows them to talk about ”what’s going on” regularly.

The American space industry is buzzing with tremendous excitement right now!

JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata is scheduled to fly from Kennedy Space Center to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. In addition, Artemis I, the first mission of the Artemis program, will be launched soon. There are also successful space travel ventures Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and space companies are appearing by the stars.

I feel that I have been given an extraordinary opportunity to come to the U.S.

Serika: What a wonderful job!

Artemis Project Highlights, according to Director Onoda

Serika: At the Washington Office, are you also in charge of operations related to the Artemis Project?

Ms. Onoda: Yes, we are. Japan will provide batteries for the first manned module (HALO) to be launched from Gateway, a manned lunar orbiting base being developed as part of the Artemis Project.

We wanted to create an early stepping stone to the Artemis Project, so we made arrangements for Japan to contribute something to HALO, which will be the first one to be launched.

Gateway and HTV-X ©︎JAXA

The Memorandum of Understanding between the Japanese government and NASA for Gateway cooperation was signed on December 31, 2020. Former President Trump left office on January 20, 2021. As you can see from this date, the memorandum was slipped in and signed before the administration changed. Now we are continuing to make specific adjustments to the building of the Gateway.

The space exploration and development program is being carried out by many people involved at many levels. Since I came to Washington, I have been working with the Japanese Cabinet Office, the Office of National Space Policy, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since I came to Washington, I have a stronger sense that we are working hand in hand with all of you to help Japanese astronauts land on the Moon.

Serika: It is thanks to the cooperation of you and many others that Japan’s participation in the Artemis Project is being promoted. Please tell me what you think are the highlights of the Artemis Project!

Ms. Onoda: There are many points of interest. One of the most notable upcoming events is the launch of the Japanese spacecraft 「OMOTENASHI」 and 「EQUULEUS」 in tandem on the Artemis I, which will send the Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit. These two will lead the way to the Moon, the first mission of Japan’s Artemis program, and I am watching with great expectation.

Image of OMOTENASHI landing on the Moon ©︎JAXA

Satellites may not have emotions, but you are very brave! I think. I want to support the 6U (10 x 10 x 60 cm size) satellite and others that will be aboard the SLS rocket that will be launched for the first time!

After the launch of Artemis I, Artemis II, the first Orion spacecraft to take astronauts to the Moon, and Artemis III, the first NASA astronaut to land on the Moon, will follow. And in December 2021, Prime Minister Kishida announced, 「In the late 2020s, we will try to realize the landing of a Japanese astronaut on the Moon」. The newly selected astronauts will train to go to the Moon. I believe that the day when a Japanese astronaut lands on the Moon will be a point of focus in the future.

©Chuya Koyama/KODANSHA

Serika: In Japan, they have begun developing a rover that will run on the moon!

Ms. Onoda: You are talking about a manned pressurized rover. Those of us working in the space industry use the term “pressurized” as a matter of course, but other people may not be familiar with it. It means that the air pressure is regulated. In space, where there is no air, humans cannot survive without space suits. In the Apollo missions, astronauts wore spacesuits and rode in rovers, right? But in this manned pressurized rover, they can ride in a T-shirt. I think it gives us a completely different living environment from the Apollo era.

Captivated by space after seeing satellites waiting for the day they fly into space

Serika: By the way, why did you join JAXA, and were you interested in space development before you joined JAXA?

Ms. Onoda: That’s a good question. It was by chance that I joined JAXA (then National Space Development Agency of Japan, NASDA) after graduating from university. Perhaps I could call it inevitable.

I studied international relations at university and was particularly interested in the environmental field, so I wanted to go to an agency working on environmental issues. I was looking at related agencies here and there and entering them in a flurry of entries when I received a call from NASDA. This was because I had made an entry, but I was surprised when the first thing they said at the opening of the call was, 「This is the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA)」, and hung up the phone. I mistakenly thought that it was a shady organization. After consulting with my father, I recognized that it was a government agency. After that, the human resources manager contacted me again, and I proceeded to the employment screening process.

That was how it was at first, but as I went to talk to graduates at my home university and visited the Tsukuba Space Center, I became more interested in space. When I saw a satellite going to space in the clean room, I was hooked! This is what I want to do! I thought.

I was able to get into JAXA, and although there was a time when I left to go back to university, I have been working at JAXA ever since. I have been able to work on a lot of environmental issues that I was interested in, and I feel that I have been allowed to do many of the things I wanted to do.

Serika: I think I know what you mean about looking at satellites and equipment going into space! What satellite projects have you participated in? Were there any memorable events?

Ms. Onoda: Three projects have left a deep impression on me. The first is the Advanced Data Earth Observation Platform Technology Satellite “Midori” (ADEOS), which is used to monitor the global environment, such as global warming and ozone layer depletion.

Earth Observation satellite platform, named, “MIDORI” ©︎JAXA

Recently, small satellites have been increasing in number, but MIDORI is a large satellite weighing over 3 tons. Because a large satellite can carry a large number of sensors, we can conduct joint projects with overseas space agencies, and the process of building the satellite together with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European Space Agency, and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNDS) gave us a sense of unity.

I also participated in the Advanced Land Observing Satellite “Daichi” (ALOS) project.

Image of Hokkaido, captured by ALOS ©︎JAXA

The data observed by Daichi was so large that Japanese technology at the time could not keep up with the processing capacity. So we cooperated with space agencies in other countries, sharing data processing and delivering the data to users. It was good to see the process of progress in data processing technology.

Our Lives are Inseparable from Space

Ms. Onoda: The most memorable experience for me was participating in the “World Summit on Sustainable Development” held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002. Many people now know that satellite observation data is being used to address environmental issues, but back in 2002, this was completely unknown. On the contrary, the development of satellites is expensive and their status is such that they are considered enemies of the global environment… In order to eliminate misunderstandings, we had to show that satellite data could be used for such things.

Seika: It was only 20 years ago, but the situation was so different from today.

Ms. Onoda: So I went to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held a side event, and negotiated to have the use of satellite data included in the Joint Declaration that would be compiled as the outcome document of the summit. As a result, the “Plan of Implementation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development” presented at the summit included the words “satellite data” and “space” in more than a dozen places! This was a milestone. I believe that the reason why the Earth Observation Program is still funded and surviving today is that the effects of this summit are still being felt 20 years later.

In the U.S., Europe, and Japan, Earth observation programs have continued, and private companies have entered the field. I have found that it is possible to go from a place where there was no public recognition at all to a place where things blossom at once if I work hard. It was a fun job that combined my background in international relations with my love of satellites. I feel like everything I do now is an extension of this experience.

Serika: That is a wonderful episode. Space development and space exploration are often thought of as distant events, but you are creating technologies that support our daily lives.

Ms. Onoda: Yes, they are. Our daily lives have become inseparable from space. Many smartphone applications would not be possible without information from satellites. Even weather forecasts would not be as accurate as they are today without satellite information. We are aiming to go further than low Earth orbit, to the Moon and Mars, and the technology that will be created there will always be useful for life on the ground.

On the other hand, just as environmental problems are occurring on Earth, space debris and military use are becoming problems in space as well. I would like to take care of the environment, including space.

Serika: I would like to continue to communicate how space development contributes to our daily lives. Thank you very much, Ms. Onoda!

The eleventh guest in the series of conversations with Astronaut Serika was Ms. Onoda, Director of JAXA’s Washington Office, and talked about various topics such as Artemis Ⅰ, the connection between daily life and space, and her responsibility.

The next guest will be James Crawford, the Founder and CTO of Orbital Insight. We will discuss “how the Earth observation × AI will contrbute to society”. Stay tuned!

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We are startup company started as a project in University of Tsukuba, 2011. We will provide the optical telecommunication service with LEO Sat operator by 2023.