Tokyo, Jul 8 : NASA's 30-year space shuttle programme is set to end with Atlantis' final flight on Friday, but with the space race intensifying in Asia, Japan is eager to become a commercial space power.
Atlantis will make a last supply run to the International Space Station, before joining Discovery and Endeavour in retirement.
Japan's goal is to provide launch services for commercial satellites from countries spanning the globe as well as to put Japan's own payloads into space.
Once shuttle Atlantis has completed its mission, NASA and others won't have a way to get into space for years except hitching a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Japan's space programme has yet to attempt manned flights, but has developed an unmanned cargo transfer spacecraft known as the HIIB Transfer Vehicle (HTV), which is used for delivery of supplies to the ISS.
The HTV's mission in carrying supplies for the ISS is designed to help fill a hole left by the retirement of NASA's space shuttle programme.
The unmanned rocket ferries nearly 6 tons of food, water, clothing and experimental equipment to the astronauts in orbit aboard the international project.
After docking with the space station, dropping off its cargo and being loaded up with waste material, the rocket's transfer vehicle, named "Kounotori2," will be detached and burn itself up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere.
JAXA, Japan's space agency, hopes the project will help build expertise for similar low-cost ferrying missions and push forward manned flights of Japan's own.
Yoshiya Fukuda, the manager of JAXA's Industrial Collaboration and Coordination Center, said he believes the future of space exploration lies in cooperation and collaboration across the region.
"Japan should work in cooperation with East Asia and have the technology recognised further," he said.
"Space development is naturally moving in the direction where each country doesn't move independently but rather gets partnered up and shares the technology and budget, working towards the same goal," he said, citing the ISS as a good example.
Cargo missions for the ISS have become more important now that the United States has scaled back its ability to launch supplies.
Since 2009, the station has been manned by six astronauts, but keeping them fed and supplied has become a bigger challenge because of the retirement of the US space shuttles.
Japan has a module attached to the ISS that can be used by astronauts, but has relied on the United States to get them there.
Money, more than technology, is generally seen as Japan's biggest hurdle.
JAXA's budget is approximately 200 (b) billion yen (2.5 (b) billion US dollars), a tiny budget compared to what the US and EU spend on space exploration.
Even so, Japan boasts a reliable booster rocket in the domestically produced H-II series and has been one of the leaders in launching satellites.
In recent years, Japan has been overshadowed by the big strides made by China, which has put astronauts in space twice since 2003 and was the third country to send a human into orbit after Russia and the United States.
Japan has been launching satellites into space to show that its H-II rockets can compete with rivals in Russia, the United States and, particularly, China.
"First I think we have to recognise there is a space race on in Asia, and it has both a civil and a military component," said Saadia Pekkanen, an expert on space policy, at the University of Washington.
"Because we know not enough about what is happening in China, some estimates of Chinese capabilities may in fact be overblown. We actually don't know what the Chinese are capable (of)," she added.
Pekkanen described Japan as one of the "top players in the region and one that is unappreciated," suggesting that the country would be a "logical partner" for the US in advancing its own interests in the region.
The future of Japan's cash-strapped space programme depends heavily on commercial orders from foreign countries, which would help fund Japan's long-term space development.
As a result, JAXA has decided to open the payload of its rockets up to the private sector, because it has extra launching power and wants to prove it can be an important commercial partner. AP