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Getting Ready for First Spaceflight Naoko Yamazaki JAXA Astronaut

Astronaut Naoko Yamazaki is set to make her first space flight aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. She will be the seventh JAXA astronaut and the second Japanese woman in space, following in the footsteps of Chiaki Mukai. Her mission, STS-131, is scheduled to last about two weeks. If the launch goes ahead according to schedule, Astronaut Yamazaki will see Astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who started a long-term stay at the International Space Station in December. It will be the first time two Japanese astronauts meet in space. We interviewed Astronaut Yamazaki about the goals of her mission and her thoughts on space.

Transporting supplies and operating robotic arms

Q. What are the goals of Discovery's STS-131 mission, and what are your main responsibilities?

Space Shuttle Discovery (Courtesy of NASA)
Space Shuttle Discovery (Courtesy of NASA)

The purpose of the mission is to continue the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) and to bring supplies. These include equipment and materials for space experiments, and daily supplies for the six crew members who are living on the ISS. In addition, we will bring back to Earth any unnecessary items, such as equipment used in completed experiments. To transfer supplies from the shuttle to the ISS, and to pick up the things that are going back to Earth, we will use the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. Among the supplies we're delivering are materials for experiments to be carried out in the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo, including live rats, so we can study how their muscle cell change in space. It is believed that muscle decays in space because of zero gravity, so these cells will be used to research how this happens. Another experiment is to measure the number of bacteria on human skin in space.
My main mission is to operate two kinds of robotic arms. First, I will be using the Space Shuttle's robotic arm (SRMS) to check for damage to the heat-resistant tiles on its body from the shock of the launch. Second, using the space station's robotic arm (SSRMS), I will connect the logistics module to the ISS, then remove it and store it in the Space Shuttle's cargo hold for the return flight to Earth. In addition to these tasks, I will act as the load master: I'll be managing the entire operation as our team of seven transfers more than six tons of materials from the logistics module into the designated experiment devices, and loads the returning materials into the module for return to Earth. These operations have to be done in specific order, so it's a complicated job.
In addition, I'll be taking a lot of photos - of Earth, of the crew as they do their jobs, etc.

Q. What kind of training have you had for this mission?

Training using a Full Fuselage Trainer of Space Shuttle (Courtesy of NASA)
Training using a Full Fuselage Trainer of Space Shuttle (Courtesy of NASA)

I was assigned to the STS-131 mission in November 2008, and started training with the other crew members in the spring of 2009. We began by deepening our individual knowledge about the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Then, starting in the summer, we began group training in teams of two or three. To reduce the chances of making a mistake in orbit, we operate the robotic arm in teams. Good communication among crew members is also very important to prevent mistakes. Starting a few months before the launch, the seven crew members have been simulating a full day's operations based on the actual flight schedule, along with the ground-control team that will support us in orbit on a 24-hour basis. Such training will continue right up to the launch.
Ninety percent of our training is for instances of trouble. For example, if there is a computer problem, we have to carefully clear this trouble step-by-step in order to complete our mission.

Taking encouragement from a senior astronaut's long-term stay in space

Q. How did you feel about the first long-term stay in space by a Japanese national, carried out by Astronaut Koichi Wakata last year? Astronaut Wakata is also an experienced robotic arm operator. Did he give you any advice?

Training using a robotic arm simulator (Courtesy of NASA)
Training using a robotic arm simulator (Courtesy of NASA)

I was thrilled to see Astronaut Wakata's great success as a member of the Japanese astronaut team. He stayed in space for about four and half months, but before that, he trained for two and half years. I witnessed the hard work he put in during his training, so when I saw him performing his operations on orbit successfully, I thought "That's just like Astronaut Wakata!" His success encouraged me a lot ahead of my own mission to the ISS.
Astronaut Wakata has not only taught me about robotic arms, but has given me a lot of advice about what to expect in space. For example, you might put something in your pocket and close the flap, and you think it is okay, but sometimes the object might still go flying away somewhere and go missing. He gave me a lot of advice about daily life in space. I can learn about the operation of robotic arms and other devices through ground training and briefings from other astronauts, but that doesn't teach us everything we need to know about the daily challenges of life in space, so tips from senior astronauts such as Wakata are a great help.

Q. What inspired you to become an astronaut?

Training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (Courtesy of NASA)
Training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (Courtesy of NASA)

When I was a schoolgirl, I lived in Hokkaido, and we had such beautiful star-filled skies. So when "star-watching parties" were held near our house, our family often participated. I looked through a telescope at the craters on the Moon or the stars, and thought "space is amazing." That's how I developed an interest in space. After I returned to Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, where I was born, I often went to the planetarium with my elder brother, and that experience also deepened my interest in space. After watching cartoons such as Galaxy Express 999 or Space Battleship Yamato on TV, I simply thought,"anyone can go to space when they grow up." I learned about the existence of astronauts when I was in junior high school, through the sad news on TV about the accident of the Space Shuttle Challenger. At that time, I wanted to become a school teacher. There was a teacher aboard the Challenger, which surprised me a lot. Starting with that experience, I became more aware about the work of astronauts and started on the path to a space career.

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