Japan has launched an ambitious 20-year plan that would rejuvenate its stagnant space programme. Objectives announced by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) last week include Earth observation, a Moon probe and a manned space shuttle.

Japan wants to send a shuttle to the Moon. Credit: JAXA

But critics are worried that the vision lacks focus, and that a thinly spread budget could cause problems for the agency.

Public support for JAXA has plummeted in the past couple of years in the wake of some failed missions. New launches were stalled after an H-IIA rocket malfunctioned in November 2003, and a month later the agency lost its Mars probe Nozomi.

JAXA's first long-term plan, announced on 6 April, was well timed, however, coming some six weeks after the successful launch of an advanced H-IIA rocket.

All the projects in the new plan are “important for the nation and its people”, says Ryosuke Futamata of JAXA's strategic planning division. For the first ten years, the main objective is to develop systems for Earth observation and disaster information.

One aim is to give people disaster warnings and evacuation information on their cellphones in the event of an earthquake or tsunami. Another proposal is to develop a system that can measure carbon dioxide emissions in different countries. And space research, including sending probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus, is also a priority.

Most media attention has focused on the part of the plan that includes a manned space shuttle and a base on the Moon. But this phase faces the most uncertainty — Futamata points out that JAXA won't even ask the government for the money for at least a decade.

Even so, critics are concerned that, with a current annual budget of just ¥180 billion (US$1.7 billion) — about a tenth of NASA's — JAXA is trying to do too much. Akimasa Sumi, a special member of the government's Space Activities Commission, says that part of the problem is the agency's inability to stop projects once they are under way. This year, five or six satellite launches are planned, with more in the pipeline. “I wonder how these can be funded,” Sumi says. “JAXA's plans tend to be pie in the sky.”

But Sumi acknowledges that the agency needed a plan that was inspirational, rather than practical. It is thinking big “to win public support amid a backdrop of falling confidence”, he says. “It can't say things that sound familiar to people.”