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Cross-culture Effort Gives Rise to 'Hope'
05.04.07
Imagine leaving your home, culture and familiar language thousands of miles behind as you carry your nation's hope for space exploration on your shoulders. That's just what some of Japan's space pioneers have been doing for a number of years as they prepare their country's first human spaceflight facility.

Japanese technicians working at Kennedy. The Japanese Experiment Module is called Kibo, which means "hope" in Japanese. Made up of five elements, the module will expand the research capabilities of the International Space Station, or ISS, once its components are assembled in space.

Image left: Technicians review data for preparing the Japanese modules for space. Photo credit: NASA/KSC

With both pressurized elements now undergoing processing and checkout in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the pace of the long-standing cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Japan has quickened.

Along the way, space workers from both countries have learned quite a bit about each other while bridging the cultural and language gaps. However, with English as the official language while working on the station components at Kennedy, the gap might have been slightly wider for the Japanese.

Among the cultural challenges they've faced, "Difference of language might be the biggest one, for which we Japanese were prepared to work with the NASA engineers in English," says Tetsuro Yokoyama, operations project deputy manager for Kibo. He points out that he has seen improvements during the 20-year collaborative effort.

Bunny-suited technicians work on space station module. Scott Higginbotham, NASA's payload mission manager for all three of the space shuttle flights that will carry the Kibo modules to space, calls his Japanese counterparts "a joy to work with." He explains that even something as simple as the difference in time between Florida and Japan can present one more hurdle for them to overcome while working in the U.S.

Image right: Workers process the Japanese Experiment Module at Kennedy's Space Station Processing Facility. Photo credit: NASA/KSC

"Their management is half a world away, so they end up working here during the day and, at night, they have to go have teleconferences with their bosses back home," he says. "They tend to work very, very long days."

That dedication is bringing the 20-year-old dream of a Japanese presence in space to reality. "And for those of us who are working with them, it's very easy to get wrapped up in their enthusiasm," says Higginbotham, who got to experience the other side of the cultural exchange during four trips to Japan during the course of his involvement with the development of Kibo.

Koki Oikawa and Scott Higginbotham Koki Oikawa, who is in charge of both pressurized Kibo components and their launch site operations, has seen the mutual understanding evolve. "After some accumulated experience in the joint operations at KSC, the American team started to understand our culture and even our individual personalities and ways of thinking. I believe not only Japanese, but also my American colleagues are very devoted to the ISS program and I feel that a healthy mutual respect has been established between us."

Image left: Koki Oikawa of JAXA and Scott Higginbotham, NASA payload mission manager, help celebrate the arrival of the Kibo Experiment Logistics Module at the Space Station Processing Facility in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/KSC

While Kibo's orbiting of Earth as part of the space station will be the tangible result of the cooperative effort, space workers from both sides have learned valuable lessons about one another that will take them forward to future projects.

"What we're doing here now on the station, not only are we building this marvelous research facility, but we're also learning and setting the stage for how we can work together on manned spaceflight projects for the future," Higginbotham says. "Hopefully, what we've learned from the station will make the next big program even better."

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center