Partners in Good Times and Bad

The real test of any partnership is not when things are going well but when they are not. While success can paper over differences, failures can exacerbate them, revealing the real problems that exist between individuals, organizations or nations.

That’s the stress test that the partnership between Japan and the United States in space science is facing.

In February, Japan launched Hitomi, a flagship x-ray astronomy mission whose payload included a NASA-developed instrument called the Soft X-Ray Spectrometer (SXS). Hitomi was supposed to operate for at least several years, but barely a month after launch the spacecraft malfunctioned, and within weeks declared a loss.

If that failure — blamed in part on human error by Japanese spacecraft controllers — has put stress on the partnership between NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA, it has not yet revealed any weaknesses in it. At a forum on U.S.- Japan cooperation in space science, held in Washington June 10 by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, representatives of both JAXA and NASA expressed optimism that cooperation will continue.

JAXA officials, for their part, were contrite and even embarrassed by the failure of Hitomi. “We apologize for this deeply,” said Saku Tsuneta, director general of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. “This is an embarrassing situation for us, but this is a fact and we have to accept this.”

On June 15, JAXA announced that three officials, including Tsuneta and JAXA President Naoki Okumura, would take a 10 percent pay cut for the next four months because of the loss of Hitomi. That may be a token measure of responsibility for the mission failure, but it’s also not something you would likely see NASA do.

Besides speaking at the forum, Tsuneta said he was in Washington to meet with NASA officials about how to recover the science lost with Hitomi. That won’t be easy, since Tsuneta also said JAXA’s schedule of large, or “strategic,” missions is already planned out through the late 2020s, with no room for f lying a replacement mission.

Both JAXA and NASA officials at the forum said it’s too soon to determine how they can recover from the loss of Hitomi. One option might be to fly just a replacement SXS — and NASA does have some spare parts for the instrument — on some other spacecraft, but any decision may be months, or even years, away.

Other space science partnerships between NASA and JAXA continue. As NASA prepares to launch its first asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, in September, JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is already on its way to another asteroid. The two missions, while independent, are collaborating in a number of ways, from an exchange of scientists to eventual plans to share the asteroid samples they return. “The spacecraft are talking to each other on Twitter,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx.

More importantly, the scientists and space agency officials are still talking to each other after the loss of Hitomi.

“We appreciate the openness and transparency that our JAXA colleagues have shown,” said Geoff Yoder, NASA’s acting associate administrator for science. “From our standpoint, we want to work with our colleagues and work through this.”

That’s a good sign for the strength of that partnership.