NASA Administrator Mike Griffin made a trip to Japan this week - accompanied by Space Operations Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmeier. Topics under discussion include NASA's new exploration architecture and the International Space Station (ISS). Specifically, talks were to focus on how the U.S. wants to change Japan's contribution to the ISS.
NASA planners have already decided not to fly the Centrifuge Accommodation Module - a specialized gravitational biology laboratory which includes a 2.5 meter centrifuge and associated life sciences equipment. NASA entered into a special barter deal with Japan in the late 1990s where by Japan would develop and build the module. When delivered, it would be considered as a U.S. research laboratory module. In exchange, NASA gave future credits to Japan for the cost of launching its JEM (Kibo) module and part of the common ISS operational costs that would be charged once Kibo was on orbit.
Now NASA has financial problems and is trying to reduce space shuttle flights to a bare minimum. NASA also has lost interest in doing meaningful life science research on the ISS - thus relegating the Centrifuge to the "no longer needed" category.
As part of the deal being negotiated, according to NASA and industry sources, Griffin is considering offhaving Japan build a nuclear reactor that would be delivered to the lunar surface - a task once considered part of NASA's now evaporating Project Prometheus. Japan would also likely get the chance to place astronauts on a lunar mission.
Of course, all of this is a long way off - the soonest that the reactor - and any Japanese astronaut - are likely to be heading for the moon is the end of next decade.
It is is not clear if Japan will agree to such an arrangement or when a formal deal will be struck. Japan had encountered developmental problems and cost overruns on the Centrifuge project - an effort which turned out to be more difficult than it had been expected. Allowing the formal reason for canceling this module to be blamed on NASA financial problems and/or a shifting ISS research focus would allow the Japanese to exit the project while publicly saving face.
Other international partners - most notably Europe - are watching these negotiations as closely as they can. Word is circulating that NASA may try a similar tactic with Europe as well.