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The Space Shuttle and Japan’s Manned Space Activities

Japan’s first experiments in space were a huge success

Q. Which of the FMPT’s laboratory equipment was difficult to create?

Astronaut Mamoru Mouri holding a rack of chicken eggs and conducting an experiment (courtesy: JAXA/NASA)
Astronaut Mamoru Mouri holding a rack of chicken eggs and conducting an experiment (courtesy: JAXA/NASA)

I had no experience in making things that have to operate correctly in outer space, so all the lab equipment took a lot of work to create. One lasting memory I have is about equipment to investigate how fertilized chicken ova would develop in space. These ova are sensitive to vibrations, so we were afraid they would die during the shuttle launch. I worked very hard until we solved the problem with gel cushioning.
I also remember the equipment we built for our space-sickness experiment, which used carp. In order to keep the fish healthy, we have to supply oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, dispose of waste and maintain water quality – and all this has to be done in a confined space with a limited amount of water. We have to put the carp within fish tanks into the lab equipment 24 hours prior to launch (late access), in order to keep carp alive during launch phase. The size and weight of our fish tanks just barely met NASA’s late access requirements. NASA said, “Something that big isn’t going to pass inspection.” So we built a mock-up of the fish packages to show them the tanks would fit, and somehow we passed.

Q. Did all the of the FMPT laboratory equipment function properly?

Vestibular function experiment equipment, to study the mechanisms of space sickness in fish
Vestibular function experiment equipment, to study the mechanisms of space sickness in fish
Japanese medaka fish inside IML-2 laboratory equipment
Japanese medaka fish inside IML-2 laboratory equipment

There were no major problems with the FMPT lab equipment, and it worked fine. We had some minor flaws, but we succeeded in conducting 34 experiments in eight days. NASA was impressed. They said, “Japan is amazing for being able to do so much.” Having all the equipment function properly and completing all the scheduled tests was a pretty big deal at the time, I think.

Q. What do you think about when you look back on the FMPT mission?

At the time plans for the ISS were already underway. In the lead-up to that, I really wanted to make sure that Japan’s first experiments in space were a success. Everyone else was working hard towards this goal too, and I think the FMPT provided a big boost of encouragement for us to build the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module.
I believe the FMPT was the starting point for the many manned space activities in which Japan is involved today, such as the development and operation of laboratory equipment in space, conducting experiments in space, and our coordination and astronaut training with NASA. For example, the equipment for experimenting on aquatic life forms – such as the vestibular function lab equipment I mentioned earlier – was also used in the IML-2 for tests on goldfish, Japanese medaka fish (killifish) and Japanese fire belly newts. So this was clearly a field in which Japan had gained expertise. There are plans now to use a next-generation version of this equipment on the ISS for experiments on changes in multiple generations of Japanese medaka fish. So a lot of the equipment now being used on Kibo has its origins in the FMPT.
And although the ISS is an international, collaborative mission, when we performed the FMPT, NASDA had no prior experience – we were sending humans into space for the first time – and so we felt that we had to do what NASA told us to. After the FMPT we were able to have discussions with NASA on an equal footing, as we continued our experiments in space with the IML-2. I believe that we now have Kibo because we were able to build up our expertise and experience starting with the FMPT.

The results we produce today have uses for tomorrow

Q. Are there any Space Shuttle missions in particular that stand out for you?

Space Shuttle launch with astronaut Mamoru Mouri on board, September 1992 (courtesy: NASA)
Space Shuttle launch with astronaut Mamoru Mouri on board, September 1992 (courtesy: NASA)

Well of course I remember the Challenger accident in 1986. At the time we were developing FMPT lab equipment, and with no shuttle launches in the foreseeable future I was worried about what would happen to the FMPT. But we didn’t interrupt our development work. Instead we just kept making the equipment anyway.
Afterwards, when shuttle flights resumed, the launch of the FMPT was set for 1991, but it was delayed another year due to a hydrogen leak in the shuttle’s Quick Disconnect (QD) connector, so it wasn’t until September 1992 that astronaut Mamoru Mouri actually flew into space. Our initial plan had been delayed by four years and eight months, though if you consider that the first phase of planning envisaged a launch in 1984, then we were actually eight years behind schedule. But this extra time allowed us to improve our lab equipment and give our astronauts thorough training.

Q. What do you think the Space Shuttle’s missions have contributed to Japan?

Astronaut Soichi Noguchi working inside Kibo’s Pressurized Module
Astronaut Soichi Noguchi working inside Kibo’s Pressurized Module

First off, I think space has become more familiar to us because of Japanese people going up there and doing things. Our understanding of space exploration has increased. I also think a really big thing is acquiring techniques for putting humans in space. For example, things like our methods of selecting and training astronauts, the support and health management we give them in space, and development and operation methods for space laboratory equipment are all techniques related to manned space activities.
Kibo has received technical acclaim for being a quiet and comfortable environment that has experienced no major problems, which is thanks to techniques and technologies developed on shuttle missions. I also believe that global praise for Japanese techniques and technology not only helps with space exploration, but also improves Japan’s international standing today.

Q. What do you think of the results of Japan’s experiments on board the Space Shuttle?

Kibo’s racks of laboratory equipment (courtesy: JAXA/NASA)
Kibo’s racks of laboratory equipment (courtesy: JAXA/NASA)

Scientific research does not produce major results on the first try. I believe you have to repeat and repeat to form the foundation from which results arise. This is how the experiments on the shuttle are connected to Kibo. For example, principles from an FMPT experiment to grow high-quality semiconductor crystals are being applied to an experiment now being conducted on Kibo that deals with the Marangoni effect. There are also plans to continue the reproduction and breeding experiments that were done on the IML-2 with Japanese medaka fish by testing these fish on Kibo, the aim being to identify the cause of disease on the genetic level. The fundamentals of Japan’s experiments in space today are a product of experiments performed on the shuttle.

Q. Looking ahead, what do you expect to see from Japanese space exploration?

One distinguishing feature of KOUNOTORI, Japan’s space station supply ship, is that its hatch for docking with the ISS has a larger diameter than Europe’s ship, the ATV, so it can transport larger lab equipment. Now that the Space Shuttle has been retired, there are items we wouldn’t be able to carry without KOUNOTORI, so I expect we’ll use it a lot. We’ve also lost most of our opportunities to bring ISS test samples back to Earth. That’s why we are working to make KOUNOTORI retrievable on the ground. If we can create that technology, then I think it will lead to the development of a manned spacecraft in the future.
Of course personally I’d like Japan to make its own manned spacecraft. I believe that in the future humans will be even more active in space, so I’d like Japan to lead the world when that time comes. Especially because we’re in an economic slump now, I’d like us to have big goals and dreams, and for everyone to come together and work to achieve them.

Masato Koyama

Special Director, Space Environment Utilization Center, JAXA Human Space System and Utilization Mission Directorate
Koyama joined the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA, now part of JAXA) in 1974, working on flight analysis in the Launch Vehicle Design Group. In 1984, he joined the space experiment group at the Space Environment Utilization Center, and worked on missions such as the IML-2 and FMPT, while also developing laboratory equipment for Kibo. Koyama was assigned to the JAXA Washington Office in 2002, and returned to the Space Environment Utilization Center in 2005 to work on Kibo operations. He took up his current post at the Space Environment Utilization Center’s Information Systems Department in 2010.

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