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These Amazing Artifacts Take You Inside Japan’s Little-Known Trip To The Moon

You did learn about Japan’s moon visit in school, right?

It’s a little-known story of Cold War space exploration: After a Japanese engineer found a fragment of moon rock on a golf course, he got inspired to fund his own secret trip to the moon.

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The engineer, named Akitoshi Fujiyama, built a mission control center inside an abandoned pachinko parlor, and then worked with a friend at an auto repair shop to start hacking together a lunar rover. At home, he covered a traditional shoji screen with aerospace materials designed to protect him from cosmic rays.

The story is little known because it actually isn’t true. But Madrid-based artist Jorge Mañes Rubio spent weeks building artifacts to prove that it had happened, piecing together fragments of the lunar rover, a turquoise meteorite, a space jacket, and the mission control center.

When the objects went on display at a Japanese museum, Rubio wanted visitors to question what was real. “I believe there are many ways to look back at history and many ways to write it,” he says. “We’re actually looking back and rewriting it all the time, so I thought it would be interesting to create a story that could touch people and at the same time revolve about issues I consider important or urgent to address today.”

The fictional engineer hopes to go to the moon to start mining it to sell minerals, something that may begin to happen in real life in the not-so-distant future. In 2016, if the startup Moon Express manages to land on the moon, it could both win the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize and kickstart a new era of strip-mining the moon.

Rubio was inspired to create the story and artifacts at an artist residency in Japan. As he explored southern Japan, the limestone quarries and karst plateau reminded him of alternate worlds. “It was like being on another planet,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in this subject since I was just a kid: astronauts, space missions, science-fiction movies,” he says.

He worked with Ube Industries, a manufacturer of aerospace materials, to set up some of the scenes, despite the fact that UBE didn’t fully understand what the project was about. “In the beginning, it was quite tough,” Rubio says. “I think they could not really understand my sudden interest into everything they manufacture or produce.”

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For one of the pieces, Rubio used Upilex–a film that Ube manufactures as an advanced thermal blanket for space–and then collaborated with local craftspeople to build it into a traditional Japanese screen that the fictional engineer wants to use on his space travels.

“Even if he will be far away from his village, he feels the need to stay connected to his home, his culture, his people,” Rubio says. “So this idea is reimagining this Japanese screen as an aerospace artifact that will not only make him feel like home, but will also be extremely functional and will protect him from galactic cosmic rays.”

In the end, a full collection of fake objects tells the story of the engineer. He built authentic objects into the exhibit as well–lunar maps, the photos he took at Ube’s headquarters–to make it even harder to tell what had actually happened.

“People knew about these places, so I think they also assumed the rest had to be real, too,” he says. “Reality was mixed up with fictional elements and therefore distorted.”

When Ube employees came to the museum show, even they believed it. “Most of them continued to ask me, and the rest of the museum’s staff, ‘Where is Akitoshi Fujiyama?'” he says. “They really wanted to meet him.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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