April 1, 2008 / 8:43 AM / in 10 years

Japan space agency searches for new astronauts

<p>Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Takao Doi waves from iinside the new Kibo module of the International Space Station after giving Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda a video tour of the new addition to the ISS in this image from NASA TV March 19, 2008. REUTERS/NASA TV</p>

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s space agency began recruiting astronauts for the first time in nearly a decade on Tuesday amid growing interest in the space program spurred by a Japanese astronaut’s journey on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour.

Japan’s space program was in tatters in the late 1990s after a series of mishaps, but it sent its first lunar probe into orbit last year in hopes of putting the program back on track.

The first piece of a new Japanese laboratory was also installed on the International Space Station last month, paving the way for more Japanese astronauts to work in space.

“We hope to have more applicants this time than we did last time,” said Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (AXA) official Takahiro Abe. “Japanese will have opportunities to work for long periods at the International Space Station.”

Japan’s space agency now has eight astronauts with massive media coverage given to each when they travel to space. Takao Doi, part of the Endeavour’s crew last month, chatted with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda about Japanese space food.

The space agency will choose up to three applicants in a four-part screening process which includes medical checks, written exams, interviews and a swimming test.

Successful candidates will undergo two years of training with NASA, study English and Russian conversation and learn how to operate systems for the International Space Station.

Three out of 864 applicants were chosen when the space agency last recruited astronauts in 1999.

Japan’s space program hit a low point in the late 1990s after two unsuccessful launches of the rocket H-2. Disaster followed in 2003 when it had to destroy an H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites minutes after launch as it veered off course.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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