Japan's showcase piece of the space station

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tetsuro Yokoyama flips a switch and illuminates a room heavy with the odor of fresh paint and new carpet.

At a quick glance, the future home of mission control for Japan's first manned orbiting laboratory is a work in progress. But Mr. Yokoyama, the laboratory module's operations director, describes a facility teeming with activity - flight controllers monitoring the lab's systems, scientists in an adjoining room tracking and tweaking experiments, and technicians keeping ground-based systems operating 24 hours a day. "Several hundred people in all will be working here when it's fully operational," he says.

As Russia's new orbiting "space tug," Zarya, awaits the arrival of the first US-built element of the International Space Station (ISS), Japan is staging its own countdown to the 2001 launch and installation of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). The 510 billion yen ($4.2 billion) project is the centerpiece of Japan's bid for a seat on the flight deck as humanity begins a new era of international cooperation in human spaceflight.

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Japan gets firsthand experience

"Japan's space strategy has put importance on unmanned missions. But we also have to get manned experience," says Hiroshi Fujita, who heads the space-utilization division at Japan's Science and Technology Agency, the government office that oversees the National Space Development Agency (NASDA), largest of the country's two space agencies. The space station, he says, represents a cost-effective way for a country with a limited space budget to build that capability.

The 13.4-ton orbiting lab is as ambitious and complex a unit as any the station will contain. Measuring 14 feet across and 37 feet long, the pressurized cylinder taking shape at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagoya is designed to conduct a wide range of biology and material-science experiments inside, while an external platform will hold as many as 10 astronomy and earth-observation experiments.

In addition to the lab module, the Japanese are supplying a storage module for supplies, which will be sent up from earth in a Japanese-built unmanned transfer capsule known as the HTV. Launched atop Japan's H2-A rocket (see story below), now under development, the transfer vehicle will help resupply the space station. And in payment for the launch of Japan's lab and the logistics module, which will ride in the cargo bay of a US space shuttle, NASDA is supplying a centrifuge module, which will allow scientists to simulate in a highly controlled manner the effects of gravity while on orbit.

In all, Japan is spending 310 billion yen on flight hardware. It is spending another 200 billion yen ($1.65 billion) for the ground-based facilities that will support JEM - its own mission control center, as well as training facilities for Japanese astronauts who will help staff the lab. Compared with the long-running Russian space-budget soap opera, Japan has quietly built a reputation as a low-maintenance partner.

Design is constant

While all the other major players - Canada, Europe, and even the US - have changed their designs, either as a result of internal budget pressures or in response to changes in the US approach, Japan has held relatively constant, says one NASA official familiar with Japan's effort. "They're the only country bringing exactly what they said they would," says Christine Cwiertny, of the NASA-NASDA liaison office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Yet Japan has budget problems of its own, although they pale in comparison with Russia's. Efforts to cut the government's budget deficit have sharply reduced the rate of increase in spending for NASDA from 7-10 percent a year three years ago to 1.4 percent today. The shift has forced the scaling back of other programs in order to ensure that enough money goes to JEM and the H2-A to meet the country's ISS commitments. Indeed, NASDA has informed NASA officials that the centrifuge module faces a budget shortfall.

As with the relationship between NASA and the Russian Space Agency, NASDA has had to learn how to communicate with NASA and has gotten a sometimes bumpy primer on NASA's technical expectations, acknowledges NASDA senior engineer Tatsuo Matsueda. Still, JEM continues to pass its tests with relative ease. NASA officials say the module faced only a handful of technical issues when it underwent a design review in March. And tests on the engineering version of the module have gone well. The module underwent the second in a series of hands-on tests by a teams of astronauts of various sizes and skill levels. The tests, "were exceptionally well run, and we came away with almost nothing that was unacceptable," says Col. Mark Lee, a NASA astronaut who took part. "The work they do is exceptional."

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