Mir prompts Japan official to cancel U.S. visit

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Mir prompts Japan official to cancel U.S. visit March 13, 2001 Web posted at: 9:42 a.m. EST (1442 GMT)

TOKYO, Japan (AP) -- Japan's defense chief said Tuesday that he would postpone a scheduled visit to Washington just in case the unthinkable happens next week when the Russian space station Mir is supposed to crash into the Pacific Ocean.

Russian space officials have repeatedly reassured their Japanese counterparts that Mir poses no significant threat to Japan, the last populated area over which the 15-year-old space station is scheduled to pass before breaking up somewhere above the Pacific between Australia and Chile around March 20.

But with the nation's news media fixated on what-if scenarios and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's crisis-management record under attack in Parliament, the Japanese government has come under pressure to take every possible precaution. Defense Agency Chief Toshitsugu Saito was scheduled to leave Tokyo on March 18 for talks with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the next day. It was to be the first meeting between the two nations' top defense officials since President Bush took office.

Saito told a regular news conference Tuesday that he had put off the trip to prioritize "crisis-management concerns" including Mir's reentry, agency spokesman Isao Oseto said.

The cancellation was the latest in a series of high-profile moves by Japanese authorities trying to reassure a jittery public.

Earlier this month the Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to Tokyo to seek reassurances that Japan would receive "prompt and complete information" about the splashdown.

The government is still smarting from criticism of its most recent attempt at crisis management -- after the accidental sinking last month of a Japanese trawler by a U.S. submarine.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was lambasted by political allies and enemies alike for finishing a round of golf even after receiving reports that several high school students had gone missing in the accident.

Mir fear in Japan has been exacerbated by the country's news media, which have missed no opportunity in recent weeks to encourage the public to contemplate the unthinkable.

Mock-ups of the space station have become a familiar sight to television viewers -- as well as more ominous visuals of the aging Russian space center responsible for monitoring its fiery descent.

Adding to the jitters was news over the weekend that Russia has taken out 200 million in insurance policies against Mir-related damages.

Most of the space station is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, but space officials estimate 1,500 fragments weighing a total of up to 25 metric tons (27 tons) could reach the surface.

Japan's most-read newspaper on Tuesday called for the international community to cooperate in disposing of space junk safely.

"It will be too late after an accident happens," the Yomiuri said in an editorial. "We hope the concern over Mir will not be a passing frenzy."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 13, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ