Konnichi Wa, Kibo
The International Space Station says hello to its newest addition, made in Japan.
- By Dan Barry
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 2 of 5)
Japan's first shuttle astronaut was Mamoru Mohri, a materials scientist who flew twice in space and now, at 60, runs the Miraikan science museum in Tokyo. Along with Doi and Chiaki Mukai (who in 1998 was on the same crew with John Glenn during the latter's celebrated return to space), Mohri reported to Houston for training in late 1985. He remembers the culture shock. "Before I went to the Johnson Space Center, I didn't realize there were so many astronauts training," he says. "At that time there were about 150. Every three months a space shuttle was being launched."
Mohri is the most famous of Japan's small band of astronauts, and he appears on Japanese television frequently as a spokesman for space exploration. "For a long time [after his 1992 shuttle mission], I was the only one who had flown," he says. While the news media pay close attention when a Japanese astronaut flies (the most recent was Soichi Noguchi, a former aeronautical engineer who was on the first post-Columbia shuttle mission, in 2005), human spaceflight hasn't gotten the headlines lately that other Japanese space accomplishments have, such as the Hayabusa probe's visit to asteroid Itokawa in 2005, and the high-definition TV images that the Kaguya orbiter recently began beaming back from the moon. The launch of Kibo promises higher visibility for Japan's astronauts, who will now spend months at a time working in orbit inside a Japanese-built module.
For Europe and Japan, the project's junior partners, building the space station has been an exercise in patience. U.S. budget politics and shuttle delays have led to design changes and to shifts in the plans NASA has for its own use of the station. Meanwhile, Japan and Europe have stayed on their original course. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch much the same hardware that its predecessor, the National Space Development Agency of Japan, envisioned in the 1980s. And the list of experiments that Japanese university researchers proposed years ago—some of them follow-ups to Japanese studies conducted on 1990s shuttle/Spacelab missions—has for the most part remained fixed.
"NASA has changed its goal to technology development for [moon-Mars] exploration," says Shigeki Kamigaichi, who manages JAXA's space station utilization program. "But in Japan, our goals still involve basic science," including investigations into crystal growth, fluid physics, cell and plant biology, and the effects of space radiation on various life-forms, including humans.
Kibo brings several unique capabilities to the station, starting with the porch-like facility. The Japanese robot arm will be used to transfer experiments through an airlock so that researchers studying the behavior of materials in space will have a "hard vacuum." Another facility, an aquatic habitat, is proposed for the second phase of Kibo research, to begin after 2010. The aquarium will allow multi-generational studies of species, including zebrafish, a remarkable creature commonly used in developmental biology and genetics experiments because its embryo is transparent, a trait that makes it easier to observe the secrets of cell division and distribution.
Japan will share the Kibo facilities with its international partners. Japanese astronauts will use them only half of the time. Of that allocation, Kamigaichi says a "small portion" will be set aside for non-traditional pursuits, including cultural activities that JAXA created as a way for the Japanese public to contemplate life and the universe. In the "Space Poem Chain," nationally known poets are selecting entries from a competition, and a DVD with the first 24 winning poems will be carried up with Kibo when it is installed. Projects in space dance and art are under consideration too, says Kamigaichi.
JAXA has invited other Asian nations to propose experiments on Kibo, and has held conferences to solicit ideas from researchers in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other nations. While these would likely be modest student experiments, South Korea (which is sending an astronaut to the space station this spring) has expressed interest in building a substantial piece of experimental hardware, says Kamigaichi. Such joint ventures could establish Kibo as the Asian—not just the Japanese—sector of the space station.
AFTER MY SECOND SHUTTLE FLIGHT, in 1999, I lived and worked in Japan as the NASA astronaut office's liaison to the Japanese space agency. I was in Tsukuba, a "science city" full of elevated walkways lined with trees and flowers, and it was there that I was introduced to Japanese engineering culture.