NASA's Bolden Discovers Bento Satellites in Japan

TOKYO—Manned space exploration "is in our DNA," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said during a town hall meeting here today at the University of Tokyo (Todai). The former astronaut said he hoped to convince his boss, U.S. President Barack Obama, that manned space flight "is as important as I think it is." Given the costs, he noted, manned space exploration will require the kind of international cooperation on display at the meeting, where he was joined by Keiji Tachikawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and former astronaut Chiaki Mukai, a veteran of three space shuttle missions.

The space agency heads did not announce any new initiatives. But both emphasized the importance of joint efforts in earth observation, space science, and extending the life of the International Space Station. Last summer, a U.S. government panel recommended operating the space station through 2020. Bolden doesn’t view that as an expiration date: "I'm willing to fly ISS as long as it is productive," he said.

Bolden is hoping Japan will make its H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), an unmanned resupply spacecraft that recently made its first voyage to the space station, capable of being a rescue vehicle for use in an emergency. But even as the meeting was in progress, a Japanese task force recommended trimming 10% from the HTV development budget for the fiscal year beginning next April.

Bolden was intrigued by the work of a University of Tokyo group developing nano-scale satellites. Shinichi Nakasuka, a Todai aeronautics researcher, likened the satellites—weighing up to 10 kilograms but packed with scientific capabilities—to Japanese bento: boxed lunches with a variety of tasty morsels in a compact package. "There is great value in applying this special technique" to space efforts, said Nakasuka. "Because we are not going to have a vehicle as large as the space shuttle once it retires, we've got to be able to put things in bento boxes," Bolden quipped.

Bolden hopes to extend such bonhomie to China. A day after Obama was in Shanghai calling for the U.S. and China to cooperate on developing clean energy and addressing climate problems, Bolden said he would be "perfectly willing to make the Chinese a partner in any space endeavor." Doing so would require a change in U.S. government policy beyond his authority, however.