The small country of Japan is world champion in robust, precise engineering and robotics. The recipe for successful space travel. And for raw materials.
Japan, trapped between a hostile giant and the sea
The location of Japan, an isolated archipelago to the east of Asia's most powerful country, means that the country has little to do, geopolitically speaking, except uphill.
The habitable part of the Japanese archipelago is only one and a half times the size of the Netherlands. the country hardly has any raw materials. China's strong rise is currently diminishing Japanese influence in the region, which is already hostile to the Japanese due to its war history.
World Champion Robotics
The Japanese population is aging even faster than here and they want to prevent problems such as in Europe with poorly integrated guest workers. The reason the Japanese give priority to the development of robotics.
Robots are perfect for space travel for several reasons. They only require an energy source, not a complex living system like humans and can tolerate much more extreme conditions, such as deadly radioactivity, heat and cold, than humans.
Extreme quality awareness
The reason that Japanese cars are much more popular in Africa than, for example, European cars is that they hardly show any malfunctions. This is due to another Japanese trait: the obsession with quality that originated in the Japanese Zen philosophy.
In Japan, work is a form of meditation in which the work must be performed as perfectly as possible.
This property is very useful when building extremely complex systems such as spaceships. It was therefore only a matter of time before the Japanese realized what is the most obvious and effective future strategy for their country. The rest of the solar system, just think of the asteroid belt, is littered with those resources that Japanese industry is crying out for. After a series of early failures, the Japanese have now copied NASA techniques and are now perfecting them.
Smart use of limited resources
Japan does not have the vast resources of the United States or a large army to loot them elsewhere. The Japanese space agency JAXA has an annual budget of three billion euros, less than a tenth of NASA and less than half that of ESA, the European space agency.
Nevertheless, remarkable successes have been achieved. Japan launched the first working solar sail, IKAROS, in April 2010, with a diameter of 20 meters and 7.5 microns thick. The solar sail is also a solar panel and provides valuable knowledge for better solar panels.
The successor to Ikaros, equipped with an ion engine and a solar sail 50 meters in diameter, will travel to Jupiter and the Trojans - a cloud of resource-rich asteroids in the Lagrangian points of Jupiter's orbit later this decade.
Jupiter itself is a huge treasure trove of scarce helium.
Mining in the Trojans
If the Japanese succeed in developing a self-replicating mining robot and landing it on the Trojans, Japan could well become wealthy from the proceeds. It is likely that a follow-up project such as the mineral composition of the Trojans is known after the mission at the end of this decade.
In Japan, there have been plans for an unmanned lunar base, planned in 2020, that will harvest raw materials for Japanese industry. The moon is only 1.3 light seconds away, so robots on the moon can be controlled directly from Japan. A process has already been worked out to make moon concrete. The costs: two billion euros, not even half a Betuwe line.
The moon has a lot of titanium, other scarce metals and probably a lot of helium-3. The race for the moon has only really started now that China and India (India has the same problem as Japan: little money and scarcity of raw materials) are also sending missions to the moon. Hopefully the Europeans will also wake up from their hibernation.
After all, we have a similar problem to Japan and India: few raw materials and we don't feel like getting them from other countries by force. Collaborating with the US and both democratically ruled countries could be very profitable.