The contest may not be accompanied by the blaring cold-war overtones of the last great space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. China's space program is conducted largely in secret, and Japan's modest achievements don't make headlines. But plenty is at stake. Over the past few years, a centuries-old rivalry between China and Japan has flared anew. While the two countries are increasingly interdependent economically, relations remain uncomfortably strained as fast-growing China begins to challenge Japan as the preeminent East Asian power. This spring, for example, anti-Japan riots erupted in a number of Chinese cities, and diplomatic disputes over natural-gas-field rights in the East China Sea continue to rage.
With the two countries mired in a state of low-grade tension, it's not surprising that their efforts to be (and be seen as) the region's heavyweight have entered a new and higher frontier. Both countries are focusing on increasingly visible and expensive manned missions and unmanned lunar landings within the next two decades. Space exploration is one area of national endeavor where developing China, the third nation to put a man in orbit around Earth, is not scrambling to catch up with its wealthier, more technologically advanced rival. Make no mistake, says Joan Johnson-Freese, the chair of the National Security Studies Department at the U.S. Naval War College, "China is on a fast track into space," and that has definitely caught Japan's attention.
The alarm bell went off at 9 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2003. That was the moment when China's Shenzhou V spacecraft lifted off the pad carrying Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old lieutenant colonel and former fighter pilot in the People's Liberation Army. Although his flight was only 21 hours long, Yang's accomplishment triggered a historic outpouring of national pride, with China's state media portraying the country's first manned space shot as a triumph of native science, technology and collective will. Soon after the success of Shenzhou V, China upped the ante, announcing plans to launch an unmanned lunar orbiter before 2007 and a lunar lander by 2010. Chinese officials have also indicated that the nation's ultimate goal is to land a man on the moon.
In Japan, the Shenzhou V launch was met with disbelief and anxiety that continues to reverberate among scientific and political circles. "We were surprised," says Masashi Okada, a launch-systems engineer at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the country's equivalent of NASA. "Obviously we knew they were working toward it, but they achieved manned flight very quickly." Japan's own space program had been in decline for years, hobbled by a habit of following the U.S.'s lead and by domestic regulatory barriers that bar programs with potential military applications. Between 1999 and 2004, the space program's budget had fallen nearly 30% to $1.8 billion, roughly one-tenth of NASA's annual budget. Despite having the world's second-largest economy, Japan has focused mainly on scientific research and telecommunications projects.
But in November 2004, Keiji Tachikawa, the former president of mobile-phone giant NTT DoCoMo, became president of JAXA. His mission: to redefine the agency's goals, win over an unenthusiastic public, and secure more generous funding from a skeptical government. This April, Tachikawa unveiled a new long-term planning statement titled "JAXA Vision 2025" designed to turn the space agency around and establish a manned space program. Over the next 10 years, says Tachikawa, JAXA will study the advisability of lunar exploration and figure out whether Japan should initiate its own manned program. The process won't be quick: he hopes for government approval by 2015.
Tachikawa acknowledges that China's recent feats in space have been a powerful motivator for Japan to pursue an aggressive program of its own. "There are countries which have manned spacecraft, like Russia and the U.S., and those who don't," he says. "China beat us to it, so it is plainly 1-0. We are fully aware that our space-development program has to include manned spacecraft."