Monday, December 21, 2009

Flatmates in Spaaaaace...

Here's my post that I thought I'd lost. Silly fool that I am, I forgot that I backed it up on the blogger site! You'll notice that this was "published" on December 21st, yet I talk about losing it on December 24. Electronic media has a way of being mind-bending like that. I thought I might also mention that I sent a Xmas e-postcard to the ISS crew - which is quite busy at the moment with 3 docked spacecraft and 13 astronauts floating around inside. Sadly my e-postcard was highly unmemorable, something about does Santa deliver to your orbital inclination. At best it would get a groan.

Recently I wrote an assignment for my MBA course on East-West negotiations. Given that I was allowed pretty much a free hand, I chose to write on what interested me, and that was spaaaaaace! Specifically, the International Space Station, which, by the way, at $30-$100 billion (estimates vary) is the single most expensive object ever built by humanity. Oooh, I can hear people thinking now "what a horrendous waste of many, it should be given to starving people in Africa..." Well, I can think of better things that can be spent on African orphans, such as Paris Hilton's fortune for a start. Let's leave that debate for now, especially as the fallout from Copenhagen is $100 billion for developing countries (most of which will probably be spent on fuel-efficient Mercedes Benzes for corrupt ministers).

The ISS is also the world's single largest international project. It represents an opportunity to do something that the various nations around the world couldn't do separately. The partner nations are the US, Russia, Europe (not a nation... yet), Japan, Canada and Brazil.

The US needed the partner nations to help foot the bill and also save the project from cancellation at the hands of Senate, just like every other imaginative project worth doing that didn't involve the military. Even then, Clinton had to step in and bring in the Russians. The US taxpayer is still fielding most of the cost - which, at $2 billion a year, helps maintain a strong aerospace industry in the US. A strong aerospace industry and government contracts means companies like Boeing can afford to develop the 787, with all its fuel-efficient goodness so the middle-class can have holidays in Thailand (not Africa, it's not charming enough).

Russia needed the ISS because it was broke and it needed to get the Mir 2 built. Mir 2 was sort of kludged onto the original US/international section, and as such can almost function on its own. More on this later. They did however sell a ride to the first African in space (who paid for his own ticket).

The EU wanted in because they were too cheap to spend money and build their own space station, let alone their own manned space transport, despite being the second largest GDP after the US. This must be because they spend all their money on Africa. No? Oh, they spend it on farm subsidies, which results in excess produce being dumped in Africa, driving farmers further into poverty.

Japan wanted in because they had lots and lots of money (at the time) and were spending it like crazy. A (very) small part of that went into Africa, but most went into golf courses in America and companies that went bust. They had all sorts of grand plans, like the HOPE mini-shuttle and later on a reusable space plane, but of course those fell by the wayside.

Fast forward to today, and we have a sticky situation. The Americans want to explore the moon again, a new Apollo - but the trouble is they have to do this on a shoestring. NASA got there by basically unleashing floodgates of money during the Apollo era, now this isn't the case anymore and there's a lot of projects chewing up money. The two biggest are the space shuttle and the ISS. The plan is to retire the shuttle after 2010 (which is probably a good thing), and then retire the ISS after only 5 years of use, in 2015. Now, the ISS partners have put loads of money into this thing and I'm sure they don't want to see it all goe up in flames so soon. The Europeans in particular seem to expect ISS utilisation up to 2020 (10 years of use was the original agreement) and they'll probably hold NASA to that.

As for the Japanese, they're also pretty peeved I suppose. The ISS modules they contributed - Kibo, the experiment pallets and HTV, the unmanned freighter to service the ISS - represent a pretty big investment for them, and are one of the few things to go right for them in manned spaceflight. But the Japanese aren't the type to shout and wave their arms and point fingers - that's the French way. They'd rather have a deal quietly worked out, all the while being inscrutable - and, typical only of the Japanese - sitting there silently. Normally, the ISS negotiations usually start out as discussions between engineers, and these ideas get passed up the food chain until finally the politicians come with their pens and seal the deal.

The trouble with Japanese systems however, is that ideas don't get passed upwards that much. So, although there could be a dialogue between NASA and JAXA engineers, getting the JAXA upper management to respond would take time - and time is running out to get NASA to extend the ISS, or for JAXA to figure out some way to save its modules. Also, the issue of nemawashi will complicate things even more, because the issues have to be circulated around everybody. If you've ever worked in a Japanese company, you'll know what I mean - things take forever to get started - although it works quickly when it does. Such are the differences that make Japan frustrating or fascinating, depending on your inclination and situation.

What this all really means is that, if NASA continues as directed and burns the ISS in 2015, Japan better have something lined up right now. Development of aerospace tech takes time, and space is no exception. The Russian segment could become independent, but the Russian docking collar doesn't fit the docking collar on JAXA's Kibo module. Eeerk. The Japanese would need to buy a docking adapter from the US part of the station, although it would be a barter agreement as typically no money changes hands in space agreements. I didn't mention this in my assignment - doh! It seems so obvious now. But the real reason I didn't mention it is that there are a lot of other issues here - power supply being one thing. Most of the juice on ISS runs off the US grid. The Russians will add on some extra solar power modules later on, but this might not be enough to power Kibo. There's also the small problem of the Russians being the surly landlord with vodka on his breath. Japan and Russia still smart over those little spats about the Kuril islands. And with the Russian bear starting to flex its muscles, cooperation with them seems less and less likely. Even the Europeans bailed out of jointly developing the Soyuz successor, stating that the Russians wanted to do all of the work and just get paid for it - which is not the point of space programs. Space programs exist to enrich your own tech and science bases. It's a bit like Brazil paying the UK to educate UK graduates to come over and work in Brazil for a little while.

So, what plans for Japan? I think they do have something up their sleeves, as it always seems to be the case nowadays with international cooperation. Some slides have shown a joint Japan-Europe free-flying mini-station based off of Kibo and HTV, albeit sorely lacking a manned module for people to go up there. Pay the Russians? It's also not good for much except week-long stopovers to stir the beakers and get samples from the lab. Hardly the constant attention that experiments on ISS can get.

Other slides have hinted at some sort of integrated orbital outpost, a mini-ISS which is more of an assembly station for lunar and interplanetary missions. So, they are hedging their bets and they sure don't want the Russian Bear in the capsule with them. Or the Chinese Panda either. Sometime soon we'll find out NASA's future direction from Obama, but even then that will have to fight its way through Congress...

The ISS ain't out of the woods yet. But I still hope to send a Xmas 2016 postcard to them.

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