Konnichi Wa, Kibo

The International Space Station says hello to its newest addition, made in Japan.

Three to get ready: Astronauts (from left) Satoshi Furukawa, Akihiko Hoshide, and Naoko Yamazaki are all in training for duty on the space station. (NASA)
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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.

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."

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