Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Sunday, June 04, 2006

ISTS 25 -- a whole day of opening ceremonies?!

Recently, my itinerary page mumbled something about attending 25th International Symposium on Space Technology and Science. I was kinda sort goin'. Maybe. Rather suddenly, I committed, buying tickets for an overnight bus yesterday afternoon, packing in a feverish rush, and starting off at 11:40pm for a seven hour trip through the wee hours of the morning on my first sojourn ever to west coast of Japan, when I was not even recovered from SF-to-Tokyo jet lag.

And now I'm here, in beautiful Kanazawa, all registered at the last minute, and ... cravenly ducking out of the seemingly endless opening ceremony addresses.

Where exactly am I now? In the nearby 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. (By some odd coincidence, I was seated next to a young woman who came to the museum to take an exam, perhaps for a curatorial internship. Gambatte, girl, whoever you are.)

Even more precisely, I'm sitting in museum's Internet Cafe (which doesn't offer coffee, strangely), and when I peer through the doorway out into the exhibit area, I see wall after wall of delightful space-themed pictures by Japanese school children. Imagine van Gogh's Starry Night with the stars arrayed to almost pointillist density. It's kitschy, it's too cute by half, it's too Japanese by at least 75%, but it's 99.9% pure, sweet loveliness anyway.

This museum is far cooler in both senses of the word than the overcrowded and inadequately air-conditioned ceremony meeting room, with its gusts of hot air and its highly redundant touting of Kanazawa as a great place to be. The museum offers space in the usual sense. And it's full of cool air. And cool art. (Unfortunately, desperate searching and shopping for the right USB cable for my camera came to naught, so I can't show you anything.)

And perhaps the museum is, in its own quirky way, more to the point of the ISTS than any platitudes and blandishments currently venting from the podium a block away. I was disappointed by Japanese astronaut/fusion researcher Mamoru Mohri's address on space development based on Japanese culture. It was little more than A Brief History of Almost Everything. Finally, after insisting on universal values, he identified the specific cultural virtue of the Japanese in their space effort as ... wait for it ... "attention to detail." Perhaps as a sop to local tourist industry sponsors, he also manage to make the whole speech absurdly Kanazawa-centric. (Oh please God, I hope those tourism official don't pick up the word "Kanazawa-centric" for its imagined promotional value.)

This morning, I was lucky enough to be steered to a government-run (but still surprisingly palatial) hotel for my first nights stay by a Gunma University researcher Dr. Yusaka Fujii, who is here to deliver a paper on a clever method for measuring human body mass using a spring connecting the human body and a weight. Over breakfast, I pitched my idea of a Japanese version of KatySat, ideally to take advantage of a free launch on the H-IIa in 2008, a sort of JAXA version of the "Getaway Special" program used so often by AMSAT. Dr. Fujii saw many obstacles, but also mentioned that he'd like to volunteer. He has some experience with running volunteer efforts: he is the Chairman of The Society for the e-JIKEI Network, which offers open-source software for using webcams to monitor public safety, with an emphasis on early detection of kidnapping attempts.

The most interesting conversation so far today was with William A. ("Andy") Evans, including his penetrating insight that the Lewis and Clark expedition was a triumph of logistical planning. Those who know me know that I did my time in the U.S. defense logistics complex, working at LLNL during Gulf War I. But I can't hold a candle to Evans -- I soon found myself regaled with "loggie" war stories, and learned far more than I knew before about how U.S. forces were poised to take Baghdad before that got called off as "mission creep." Arguably, we're in a much bigger mess now because of that decision. But enough about that -- this conference's theme is "Space Exploration for a Peaceful Planet Earth".

Through Evans, a new word entered my vocabulary of strategic misconceptions in space development: "backpacking." The Moon part of Moon-Mars, at least, is being planned in "backpack" style, it's Apollo Redux, when what would really move things faster over the long run is taking a more logistical approach. Especially considering that Moon-Mars involves bases on the Moon.

I pointed out to Evans that Mamoru Mohri commented on the difficulties he had putting the Frontier Metaphor across to Japanese audiences, which I think is understandable: at best, the only true frontier that Japan has had within living memory is Hokkaido. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation had to close its Japan offices at one point for lack of interest among the Japanese; the Frontier Metaphor just doesn't play well in a country that was the most urbanized country on the planet in the year 1800.)

Perhaps what's needed is to marry Japan's "attention to detail" with the Lewis and Clark mythos, but with an emphasis on logistics. America's frontier mythos is symbolized by the coonskin cap, the image of covered wagons crossing the whole continent (when in fact none even crossed the Mississipi.) Various technologies for Earth-to-orbit and orbit-to-orbit still languish in the space development ghetto, not least among them the various projectile launch approaches whose history I'm making the subject of a book. And why? For the most part, for lack of a more logistics-oriented view of space development on the part of the national space agencies. Of course, the reasons have less to do with stupidity than with politics, but I will defer discussion of that point, I think. For now, I've got to get back to this conference, which I'm starting to think might be one of the most rewarding space conferences I've ever attended.