The Japanese are filling part of the void left by the retirement of NASA's space shuttle, according to the following article.
What is interesting is that the article mentions that Japan's space program has not yet successfully achieved any interplanetary probes, but this strictly speaking isn't true, as the Japanese were successful in orbiting a probe around the moon, a rather large one, in fact.
More importantly, however, the article implies the obvious for America: every other major power in the world has an up-to-date heavy lift launch platform: the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, India, and even Brazil now have all indicated their intentions to enter the new space race. We can rest assured that the Russians will continue their manned space missions and expand their automated probe explorations of space, and Europe, China, India and all the rest are sure to follow with their own manned missions. China has become the third major power to have its own indigenous and independent manned space program, and the others will not be far behind.
Nor is this simply a matter of national prestige. The spin-off technological benefits of space programs - one need only think of Apollo in this respect - are numerous. In some respects, the benefits are even essential components of the modern technological culture. These nations know this, and they know also that there are additional benefits in the potentiality that lost, sophisticated technologies might be found on other worlds, including our nearest neighbors.
Yet, at this juncture, the United States appears to be the one major power in the doldrums, retiring from the manned programs launched under the Bush administration and opting for a reliance upon automated probes. In my opinion, this is folly, and it is also to by-pass a golden opportunity to fix the American economy, provide genuine jobs in an area that would pay great economic and technological benefits to society. It is to by-pass a perfect opportunity for genuine biu-partisan cooperation.
One hopes that President Obama will eventually come around to see the value of a reinvogorated American space program.