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Preparing for my first space flight with family support

Q. How did you feel when you first learned you would be traveling to space? How did your family respond?

Crew members of the STS-131 mission (Courtesy of NASA)
Crew members of the STS-131 mission (Courtesy of NASA)

I was very happy when I was assigned to the STS-131 mission. I had a specific goal, which was to do my best for the mission, and I was looking forward to training with the other crew members. The other six astronauts on the mission team are all fun people, so I feel very honored that I'm able to go to space with such wonderful teammates.
My family was happy, too. I have a seven-year old daughter, and my husband once took her to see the launch of a Space Shuttle with a Japanese astronaut on board. She said, "Mommy is going to go on this Space Shuttle next." So it seems that she is also looking forward to my spaceflight in her own way. Recently, she said to me, "Please take a lot of pictures when you go to space. I'd like to see what Earth looks like from space." I was happy that she already has an interest in the Earth and space.

Q. The training must be very tough. How do you balance training and your daily life?

Astronaut Yamazaki training in Russia
Astronaut Yamazaki training in Russia

It seems that everyone has the impression that astronaut training is really tough, but for me, it's fun. I once stayed in Russia for about a year to train on the Soyuz spaceship, and that was very interesting. I studied aerospace engineering at university, and before I became an astronaut I was involved in the development of JEM Kibo as an engineer at the National Space Development Agency of Japan (now part of JAXA). So I am very pleased to learn about the actual spaceships at the heart of the U.S. and Russian space programs, and I feel very lucky as an engineer. There are a lot of exams, and a lot of things to learn, and some heavy burdens on your body, such as survival drills, but these tough aspects are required in any occupation.
I've been able to continue my astronaut career because of the understanding and support of people around me, including my family, friends and coworkers. It was especially important to me that my husband quit his job and made it possible for my family to stay together as much as possible when my full-scale training started in 2004 in the U.S. These days, more women continue their careers after marriage, but how you juggle your job and housework may differ depending on each family's environment, and there are various ways to do that. My family has learned to handle it through trial and error. About 10 years have passed since I became an astronaut candidate, and at the moment I'm able to concentrate on my forthcoming mission. That's not only because of my own efforts, but also due to the hard work of the people around me. I'm full of gratitude to those people.

Making my dream a reality as an engineer

Q. Is there anything you are specifically conscious of as a female astronaut?

Training on a full-scale model of the Space Shuttle (Courtesy of NASA)
Training on a full-scale model of the Space Shuttle (Courtesy of NASA)

I think being female or male is only one part of your personality. Each astronaut's personality is different. There are some who come from engineering backgrounds and others from the research field. Everyone has a different cultural background. So I don't think being a female astronaut gives me any special awareness. On the other hand, I'm very interested in how I can make a difference in this mission as an individual and as a Japanese female astronaut, and at the moment I'm thinking about how I should do this. After all, each of our seven crew members is unique. We all have different backgrounds. I will pay attention to how I can contribute to the mission as an individual, while being part of a team. Q. What are your goals after the STS-131 mission?I'd like to try a long-term stay on the ISS, if possible, based on my experience on the STS-131 mission. My biggest goal is to build a Japanese manned spaceship and to go to space aboard it. Once we have our own spaceship, more Japanese will be able to go to space, and it will appear much closer. The meaning of the word "astronaut" will then change, and what we are going to do in space will become more important than space flight itself. We could see chefs or artists playing an active role in space. I hope this comes true someday. Personally, I would like to open up something like a small school when a lunar station is built in the future, and as a teacher, I want to teach the children of Earth from space.

Just like visiting my old hometown

Q. How do you want humanity and space to work together in the future?

Training in a shuttle mission simulator (Courtesy of NASA) Training in a shuttle mission simulator (Courtesy of NASA)

I was very surprised in science class at elementary school when I learned that human beings are made of almost exactly the same things as stars - oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. Since the stars we see in the night sky are made of the same things we are, we humans are siblings of these stars and a part of space. When I realized this, I felt a bond with space. Going to space could indeed be a challenge, but to me it feels special, like I'm going back to my old hometown or something. I feel it's very precious that we were given life in the vastness of space, where we and the Earth make up such a small part of the universe. I cherish such feelings, and I hope humanity and space can get along well.
Q. Tell us about your ambitions ahead of the STS-131 mission.I will be the first female Japanese Mission Specialist going to space. I feel I am just as qualified as the astronauts from NASA, and I am looking forward to my trip as an engineer. This mission will involve the operation of the Space Shuttle, including its robotic arm, so I would like to perform my job well and pave the road for the next generation of astronauts. I think I was selected for this mission in part because of the fabulous achievements of previous Japanese astronauts. Like them, I would like to lead the mission I'm part of to success, and to make it easier for the next person.
Astronaut Noguchi left for space aboard the Soyuz spaceship in December 2009, and is staying on the ISS. If the launch of my Space Shuttle goes as scheduled, I will be on the ISS with him. It will be the first time two Japanese are in space at the same time. Such an occasion is very rare, so besides working together with him, I hope we can introduce Japanese culture to the world. I also want to show the joy of space to as many children as possible.

Naoko Yamazaki
JAXA Astronaut
Ms. Yamazaki received a Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1996, and joined the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA, now part of JAXA). She was involved in the development of the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo, as well as other projects. In 1999, she was selected as an astronaut candidate for the International Space Station (ISS) and was officially certified as an astronaut two years later. In 2004, she became qualified as a Flight Engineer for the Russian spacecraft Soyuz. She was certified as a Mission Specialist by NASA in 2006. While continuing her training as a Mission Specialist, she continued to work on the development and operation of the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo and the robotic arm of the ISS. In November 2008, Ms. Yamazaki was assigned to the STS-131 mission.

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