The Japanese space program is currently known as JAXA, or the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency, but it didn't start out that way. Prior to a merger in 2003, Japan had three aerospace agencies: ISAS (Institute of Space and Astronautical Science), NASDA (National Space Development Agency), and NAL (National Aerospace Laboratory).
In 1955, a Tokyo University professor named Hideo Itokawa was inspired by the upcoming Space Age: since Japan's jet aircraft industry was hampered after their defeat in World War II, he envisioned a future of rocket-powered transport vehicles instead. It all started with the Pencil Rocket, which was only 23-cm (or 9-in.) long. The purpose shifted from air transportation to scientific exploration, and after a series of increasingly larger sounding rockets, Japan launched the satellite Ohsumi on the all-solid-fuel Lambda-4S rocket in 1970, becoming the fourth country to send a satellite into Earth's orbit after the Soviet Union, United States, and France.
The L-4S would later evolve into larger solid-fuel launchers, but those weren't as efficient as liquid-fuel rockets. They could carry more payload mass, such as geostationary communications satellites, to higher orbits. On their own, research into liquid-fuel engines would've taken too long, so their first liquid rocket, the N-I, was mostly made out of license-built American rocket stages. Eventually, they gained enough experience to create an entirely indigenous launch vehicle: the H-II. But after several failures, Japan created the H-IIA, which was cheaper and more reliable than its predecessor.
Japan never had its own manned spacecraft (there were proposals that never came to fruition), but it trained astronauts to fly on the US Space Shuttle (starting with Mamoru Mohri in 1992) and the Russian Soyuz, and is a major participant in the International Space Station project.
Even though the Japanese space program has an even smaller budget than NASA, the Russian space agency RKA, and ESA, it still managed to make some achievements, such as the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid and return samples to Earth (Hayabusa), the first solar sail to be tested in interplanetary space (IKAROS), and the largest pressurized module on the International Space Station (Kibo).
JAXA has two launch facilities in southern Japan: Tanegashima Space Center for large, liquid-fuel rockets note , and Uchinoura Space Center for the smaller solid ones.
Tropes about JAXA:
- Backed by the Pentagon: JAXA has given assistance to some space-themed works; see the "appearances" section below.
- Cool Ship: The H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV, also known as Kounotori) is an unmanned resupply spacecraft launched by the H-IIB, and the only craft (after the retirement of the Space Shuttle) capable of carrying multiple International Standard Payload Racks to the International Space Station, as well as cargo exposed to the vacuum of space. JAXA plans to develop the pressurized section into a returnable capsule (HTV-R) that can be used for manned missions.
- Icarus Allusion: The solar sail demonstrator IKAROS. Unlike its namesake, however, the sails didn't melt.
- Interplanetary Voyage: Although their Mars and Venus probes (Nozomi and Akatsuki, respectively) failed to enter into orbit (JAXA had a contingency plan for Akatsuki to attempt another Venus orbit insertion in December 2015, which succeeded), Hayabusa became the first probe to land on an asteroid (named after Hideo Itokawa) and return to Earth in 2010. In the 1980s, Sakigake and Suisei were two probes launched to Halley's Comet by a solid-fuel rocket with engines that could not be throttled or stopped until it ran out of propellant.
- Lucky Charms Title: The JAXA logo (J☆XA) has a star in place of the first "A".
- Kawaisa: JAXA has cute mascot characters for some of its missions:
- No Budget: JAXA has to make do with about 200 billion yen, or about two billion dollars, every year. It's half of ESA's (or RKA's) budget, and almost ten times less than NASA's, but is still a lot of money.
- Overly Long Name: Though JAXA is often used (written in roman characters) in Japanese language publications as a short way to refer to the agency, that is certainly not its official Japanese title. That would be the Independent Administrative Institution on Aerospace Research and Development (Dokuritsu Gyousei Houjin Uchuu Koukuu Kenkyuu Kaihatsu Kikou).
- Pacifist: Unlike the Soviet, American, and French space programs, Japan's first orbital launch vehicle wasn't derived from ballistic missile development. It also wasn't guided.
- Pintsized Powerhouse: The Epsilon launch vehicle is designed for small scientific satellites, and is a replacement for the Mu-V rocket.
- Science Hero: The ISAS part of JAXA mostly does space science missions with the budget they are given. JAXA's SELENE (Kaguya) probe is described as "the largest lunar mission since the Apollo program." The agency also conducts satellite observations of Earth's environment and resources.
- Solar Sail: IKAROS provides the page picture.
- Space Station: JAXA owns the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo (meaning "hope"), the largest on the International Space Station. Its components were launched by NASA's Space Shuttle.
- Theme Naming:
- Alphabetical Theme Naming: Japanese launch vehicles work like this. Starting with a sounding rocket called Kappa (K), then moving on to the next Greek letter Lambda (L) for the first orbital rocket, leading to the Mu (M) series of launch vehicles. "N", which can stand for "Nippon", was used for Japan's first liquid-fuel rockets. After the development of more efficient hydrogen-fuel engines, the "H"-series began. The "J" in the J-I rocket (which only launched once, and combined parts from the H-II and Mu-3SII rockets) stood for "Japan". JAXA's most recent rocket, Epsilon (E), is supposed to be a sideways "M" to signify its similarities to and differences from the Mu-V rocket. Current sounding rockets are prefixed by "S", or "SS" for a two-stage rocket.
- Animal Theme Naming: The asteroid probe Hayabusa means "peregrine falcon", and the space station resupply vessel Kounotori means "white stork".
- Floral Theme Naming: Early communications satellites in the late 70s were called Sakura. A series of technology-testing satellites is named Kiku (chrysanthemum, which is also the Imperial Seal of Japan). Weather observation satellites are called Himawari (sunflower).
- Fun with Acronyms: A few examples.
- The experimental technology satellite EXPRESS (Experiment Reusable Space System)
- The cancelled space shuttle HOPE (H-II Orbiting Plane)
- The solar sail IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun)
- The (formerly) Moon-orbiting probe SELENE (SELenological and ENgineering Explorer, nicknamed Kaguya)
- An instrument called SMILES (Superconducting Submillimeter-Wave Limb-Emission Sounder), installed on the International Space Station to detect trace gases in the stratosphere.
- The planned infrared telescope SPICA (Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics)
- Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: The name of the solar sail demonstrator IKAROS is borrowed from Greek Mythology. The lunar orbiter known as Kaguya is named after the Moon princess from the folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
- Stellar Name: Some astronomical satellites have names like Ginga (galaxy), Hakucho (the black hole Cygnus X-1), and Suzaku (the Japanese name for a Chinese constellation, the Vermillion Bird). A future infrared astronomy satellite will be called SPICA.
- What Could Have Been:
- During the Japanese economic bubble of the late 80s, NASDA and NAL proposed a small manned space shuttle called HOPE (H-II Orbiting Plane), which would be about the same size as ESA's Hermes. After the bubble collapsed, they thought of converting plans for a smaller experimental test vehicle (HOPE-X) for unmanned space station resupply instead of building the fully-sized HOPE. In 2003, the project was cancelled before HOPE-X would have launched, because of a lack of funding mostly brought on by the economic "Lost Decade" and Asian Financial Crisis, as well as a need for satellites to spy on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Concept art of HOPE and HOPE-X can be found on the JAXA Digital Archives.
- In the early 2000s, there were plans to develop a crewed space capsule named Fuji after the famed mountain, but JAXA didn't go through with it for the same aforementioned reasons.
- Xtreme Kool Letterz: The X stands for eXploration. "JAEA"note wouldn't roll off the tongue as much.
Appearances in media and fiction (feel free to add more examples):
- Space Brothers is a manga (adapted into an anime) about a JAXA astronaut and his older brother who is trying to become one.
- In the Asian Campaign for the Art of Conquest expansion for Empire Earth, the Tanegashima Space center gets air-bombed by the Eye of God, a fanatical space-opposed terrorist organization.
- In 2009, there was a petition to add images of Hatsune Miku to the Venus probe Akatsuki which launched in 2010. It was supported by JAXA astronomer Seiichi Sakamoto, and the petition was successful, surpassing the 10,000-signature goal. There is also a Hatsune Miku song called "Hayabusa", about the eponymous space probe's journey.
- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Dual Destinies cases 4 and 5 feature the fictional GYAXA space agency, the name of which is a play on JAXA.
- Rocket Girls was made with some assistance from JAXA, although the series itself is about a fictional private space agency.
- Kamen Rider Fourze, a space-themed installment of the Kamen Rider franchise, involves some JAXA material; such as some of the older characters being retired JAXA astronauts. The Tsukuba Space Center also features in the opening sequence, and characters have visited it a couple times in the series itself.