Japan's space agency said Tuesday that it has selected a World Bank employee and a surgeon as astronaut candidates in its first recruitment drive in more than 13 years, with expectations high that they may have the chance to join an international mission to the Moon.

Makoto Suwa, 46, a disaster prevention specialist at the World Bank, and Ayu Yoneda, one of the youngest ever candidates at age 28 and a surgeon at the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, will join the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for two years of training.

Ayu Yoneda (L) attends a press conference in Tokyo along with Makoto Suwa (on screen) on Feb. 28, 2023, after they were selected as astronaut candidates by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. (Kyodo)

"I don't think the path ahead will be easy, but I hope to go to the Moon if possible," Yoneda told a press conference in Tokyo, as she expressed her joy after being picked from over 4,000 applicants, a record high.

She will become the third female astronaut in JAXA, after Chiaki Mukai and Naoko Yamazaki.

Suwa, who is the oldest candidate ever selected, said he felt "a great sense of responsibility," as he joined the press conference online from the United States, where he works. He did not give up despite failing in the previous 2008 astronaut recruitment drive.

If they become officially certified as astronauts, the two could participate in missions on the International Space Station, as well as take part in the Artemis Project, a U.S.-led international effort aimed at advancing lunar exploration and eventually sending astronauts on missions to Mars.

Under the Artemis program, which also involves Japanese and European space agencies, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working to return American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the conclusion of the last Apollo mission in 1972 and establish a long-term presence there.

Japan, a close U.S. ally, is pitching to become the second country after the United States to land an astronaut on the Moon, possibly in the latter half of the 2020s.

"I'm interested in seeing how the Earth looks from the Moon during an eclipse," Yoneda said.

The average age of JAXA astronauts is currently 52 to 53, and their retirement age is 60, triggering concerns about whether a sufficient number of astronauts will be in active service when lunar exploration is planned to accelerate.

Yoneda and Suwa have passed JAXA's exams that began in April last year, with a total of 4,127 people applying. The space agency had relaxed many of its entry conditions to garner a diverse array of applicants, with experience in related fields not a prerequisite.

Eight men and two women made it to the final round of exams in January through February this year.

Suwa previously worked on a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program in Rwanda and for the World Meteorological Organization. Yoneda graduated from the University of Tokyo's graduate school of medicine in 2019.

Suwa and Yoneda are the first people to be selected as potential astronauts since Norishige Kanai in September 2009.

According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, there have been two others chosen to be astronauts who were the same age as Yoneda upon selection -- Koichi Wakata and Yamazaki.

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