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 3 of 5)
On my very first day, I attended a meeting where I learned about Japanese courtesy. I was the only one in the room who didn't speak Japanese, but the entire meeting was conducted in English for my benefit. Even the slides had been translated. I tried to imagine NASA holding a meeting in Japanese because one visitor didn't speak English. Inconceivable. After a week of such special treatment, I resolved to learn enough Japanese to understand the technical talks, despite having always been "language challenged."
At first I was frustrated by the enormous amount of time the Japanese devoted to setting the tone for a meeting or a test. Everyone had to be present and in just the right spot; everyone had to hear the initial briefing, even when (I thought) everyone already knew the material. For every test, there were always at least two video recorders running (somewhere at JAXA there must be a ski slope made of thousands of used video tapes). After a while, though, I came to appreciate that all the preparation made the tests run very smoothly. We never had to wait for someone who was running late. There was never a missing tool. The test equipment always worked correctly the first time.
Bill Jordan worked in Japan from 2000 to 2007, first as the NASA representative to Japan's space agency, then as the NASA attaché at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. When working with Japanese engineers, he says, " ‘Yes' doesn't always mean yes." He recalls one meeting in which NASA representatives presented a concept for a latching mechanism. "We looked to the Japanese for concurrence and thought we had it," he says. "But sometimes a positive acknowledgment is an indication of ‘I understood what you said,' not ‘I agree with you.' The next day, the Japanese side presented a completely different design, disregarding everything we had discussed the day before." It took several more meetings to settle the differences.
Japanese culture highly values appearance and presentation. Meals often arrive in elegant and creative arrangements on the plate. Reflecting the attention to appearance, Japanese workplaces are exceptionally clean and well organized. Jennifer Goldsmith, a member of NASA's Vehicle Integration Test Team, spent several years in Japan developing space station hardware. She recalls one incident in which her more casual American attitude came into sharp focus. By NASA tradition, any modules built to house astronauts in space are subject to final alterations based on "crew preference," which aren't likely to show up in formal requirements documents. "Once the Kibo hardware arrived in the United States," Goldsmith recalls, "I started to [mark] crew preference [changes] on the JAXA hardware with a Sharpie marker. To see the Japanese technicians' eyes widen at the sight of me writing on their beautiful flight hardware was amazing."
There are institutional differences as well. Unlike NASA, JAXA is not an independent government agency. Its funding comes from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, but its employees are not civil servants, and there are fewer safeguards against a "revolving door" tradition of employees moving back and forth between government and industry. The relationships between industry contractors and government overseers can be puzzling to Americans. I learned this first-hand, when Kibo's pressurized module was about to be shipped from the Mitsubishi factory in Nagoya, where it was built, to the NASDA space center in Tsukuba in 2001.
Japanese quality inspections conducted during the final phases of manufacturing sometimes have the tone of a religious ritual. Top company executives are on hand along with the engineers and technicians, and attendance by outsiders is strictly controlled. The Mitsubishi representatives suggested that I watch the inspection on a TV monitor in a remote office. I was stunned—had I traveled from Houston to Nagoya just to watch a ceremony on TV? This was supposed to be a real test, not a formality, and it was the last chance to raise concerns about the module before Kibo's hatch was closed and ownership was transferred from the manufacturer to the Japanese space agency. When I pointed out that NASA was required to verify that every bolt and fixture inside the module fit the standard astronaut tools on the space station, I was reluctantly allowed to participate as "Test Subject 2."
"Test Subject 1," I was surprised to learn, was an employee of Mitsubishi, not NASDA. His job was to go through the entire module, methodically fitting tools to every fixture—all under the watchful eye of his boss' boss' boss. Imagine the pressure he felt. One misfit would ruin the ceremony.
The inspection began with each person taking a place around a circle, each place marked with footprints. The hierarchy was crystal-clear. Non-participants stood behind the circle. A reader called out the first fixture and the tool to be used. One guide showed us the fixture as another guide pulled the proper tool out of the box and carefully handed it to Test Subject 1. He fit the tool on the fixture, then handed it to me so I could do the same. We both stated that the tool fit, and the concordance was duly marked by the recorder.