The Extreme Universe Space Observatory on board the Japanese Experiment Module of the International Space Station, JEM-EUSO, is being designed to search from space ultra-high energy cosmic rays. These are charged particles with energies from a few 1019 eV to beyond 1020 eV, at the very end of the known cosmic ray energy spectrum. JEM-EUSO will also search for extreme energy neutrinos, photons, and exotic particles, providing a unique opportunity to explore largely unknown phenomena in our Universe. The mission, principally based on a wide field of view (60 degrees) near-UV telescope with a diameter of ∼ 2.5 m, will monitor the earth's atmosphere at night, pioneering the observation from space of the ultraviolet tracks (290-430 nm) associated with giant extensive air showers produced by ultra-high energy primaries propagating in the earth's atmosphere. Observing from an orbital altitude of ∼ 400 km, the mission is expected to reach an instantaneous geometrical aperture of A g e o ≥ 2 × 105 km2 sr with an estimated duty cycle of ∼ 20 %. Such a geometrical aperture allows unprecedented exposures, significantly larger than can be obtained with ground-based experiments. In this paper we briefly review the history of space-based search for ultra-high energy cosmic rays. We then introduce the special issue of Experimental Astronomy devoted to the various aspects of such a challenging enterprise. We also summarise the activities of the on-going JEM-EUSO program.