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Q. Your novel Rocket Girls is about ordinary girls going to space. Do you think it's possible for high school students to travel to space in reality? And what are your opinions about space education for the younger generation?

Rocket Girls
Courtesy of Housuke Nojiri, Muchirimuni, Fujimishobo, Happinet

I had written some stories around girl heroines previously, but not about high school girls becoming astronauts. There is this stereotypical image of astronauts, established in the time of the Apollo missions, where they are believed to be very outstanding and heroic people, with the highest intelligence and the best physical ability. So people around me often said that there was no way girl-next-door-type high school teenagers could become astronauts. But, after studying the possibility very carefully, I was convinced that high school students are capable of going to space. The heroines of Rocket Girls go through a very intensive astronaut training program on a southern island, and succeed in space flight, even landing on the Moon. I believe that, if she is isolated from the rest of the world and forced to concentrate on training because there is nothing else to do, a high school girl can learn how to operate a spacecraft. With good instructors, it would also be possible for her to understand all the mechanics of spacecraft.
In fact, Akita University is holding the Rocket Girls Training Program, where high school girls can learn how to build a satellite and a rocket. In the beginning of the program, they just sat and listened to the instructors talk. But two months later, their faces began to change; you could tell that they were trying to figure things out for themselves. These students, who used to always ask, “what should I do here?”, soon started suggesting ideas and making progress, asking, “I did this here. Is that correct?” In the end, unfortunately, after its successful launch, the satellite couldn't separate from its two-meter rocket.
They had so much pressure to make the one-time-only rocket launch successful. But building something with colleagues through trial and error is very similar to the real world of space development. Having such an experience at that age must have a great influence on their future. In fact, some of the girls have already decided to study science and technology at university. For space education, I think it's very important to give the younger generation exposure to the world of space development.

Students of the Rocket Girls Training Program at Akita University, in preparation for rocket launch (Courtesy of Akita University)

My childhood was in the very middle of the Apollo missions, when the world's attention was turned to space. However, today's world is so diverse that even children have a whole variety of interests and options. No matter how passionately you teach children about space, only a few will get interested. But those few are the ones who will pursue their interest in space when they grow up. So, when students show an interest in space or rockets, it's important that they have access to planetariums or science museums, or to adults who can teach them about space. Also, it would be good to teach children the thrill of achievement, by having them make things with other children at a school or community club.
It's often said that being cooped up makes children feel down. I believe that learning about space will help raise their spirits.

Q. Your novels are based on scientific evidence, and the realism of the stories has attracted many readers. How do you write for readers who don't have a scientific background?

When I write a story based in today's space world or in the near future, I do thorough research, as if I were a real engineer or scientist, about real scientific possibilities. And I don't write a fictional scenario until I'm convinced that it could exist if certain conditions came about.
I've enjoyed disassembling clocks and radios since I was a child. Once I learn the mechanics, I'm motivated to build one myself. I've made telescopes and rockets, too. For me, “making” and “comprehending” are linked. I learn a lot by making something. By building it myself, I can test my comprehension. My work reflects that aspect of my personality: writing a story for me is like the process of building something.
I have friends who are researchers and engineers, so I have great sources of scientific information. Of course, I study these things myself too, but the knowledge I get through these friendships is significant.
Scientific reality is very important for my stories because I want to write in a universal language, without deceiving readers. Science is a universal language. Physical laws apply no matter where you are, whether on Earth or in space. When a story is written based on scientific methodology or thinking, there is a certain universality to it. When a novel has such a quality, it has a resonance independent of the plot, whereas in fantasy stories such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, each story has a different world and different rules. So you have no clue about the magic that appears in the book if you haven't read it. But if a story is truly based on science, even if you haven't read it, you can ask engineers or researchers questions about the scenario. That's the type of conversation I enjoy with my researcher or engineer friends who are in space development. For my stories, whether they are universal is more important than how scientific they are.

Q. Some children get interested in space through novels. How do you think the public's interest in space can be encouraged?

It's very important to share the excitement of space with children, and I think that JAXA is doing well in this area. The JAXA Web site has greatly improved in the last ten years. Mind you, whether users are enthusiastic about the contents is another story. If the publicity is interesting, it will naturally generate a lot of attention. But there is a limit to how much you can do to make unspectacular contents sound interesting. I think that a key here is creating interaction between the contents and the readers. When people learn about JAXA's space projects, they should be inspired to try something themselves. Otherwise, from the public's perspective, the space program might as well be science fiction. For this to happen, we must have an interactive dialogue, where the public can have a taste of space missions.
From that point of view, I'm interested in university projects that create handmade rockets, and the nanosatellites CubeSat and CanSat. At the scale of these projects, it is possible for the public to contact the staff and arrange an on-site tour, to meet with the researchers, or even to join in production sometimes. When people are given an opportunity to participate, their interest and passion suddenly grow. I think that JAXA will be more successful with their publicity if their projects have flexibility and offer the public a chance to participate.

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