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Twelve years of intensive training

Q. What’s are some of the differences between training in Russia and in the United States?

Operation training for the ISS robotic arm.
Operation training for the ISS robotic arm.

In terms of learning “skills” to deal with emergencies, I think the training in both countries is essentially very similar. It means that we need to be well prepared for any emergency cases, be able to and apply the experience through training even if an unforeseen situation arises.
The only thing that was different was that in Russia, on each major topic, we had one instructor who taught everything. For example, if there are 50 hours of classes on the Soyuz spacecraft attitude control system, the same instructor teaches the whole entire course. Many of the instructors have been teaching there for close to 30 years, and they are like walking dictionaries. They sound like they know everything there is to know about the history of the Soyuz. In the U.S., on the other hand, a different instructor teaches each sub-topic. I’m not trying to say that one method is better or worse. I was just surprised when I saw the depth of Russian space development.

Q. What was the most impressive training you’ve ever gone through?

Survival training in Russia.
Survival training in Russia.

All in all, I would say it was survival training in Russia. In terms of physical arduousness, it left a deep impression on me. A Soyuz spacecraft with us three astronauts aboard will land on a plain in Kazakhstan when we return, but in an emergency, we might touch down in snowy Siberia, or in a body of water such as the Caspian Sea. We trained to deal with such emergency cases in winter with temperatures of -20°C. I had to spend 48 hours outside, but the wind was very strong and with the wind chill, the temperature measured -30°C. Thus even though I was wearing multiple layers, I still felt cold. I cut down a tree in a nearby forest using an axe and a knife that were in the survival kit aboard the spacecraft. We used the tree to build a fire, and took turns watching the fire at night. It was winter, so the sun would come up around 9 a.m. and it would get dark around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The nights are long, dark and cold over there. When I was working as a surgeon, I could catnap whenever I could find a little time, but during this training, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t sleep because I was so cold. I thought my hands might get paralyzed from frostbite, and I think it was this training that toughened me up both mentally and physically.
Also in Russia, we trained for manual return mode using a centrifugal accelerator. A centrifugal accelerator simulates the gravitational constant (G) at the time of launch or return to Earth, and it can create the condition where you can feel the G on your chest toward your back. Normally, a spacecraft would be operating in automatic mode on the return trip, but in case of emergency, we have to be able to operate it manually. So we had to learn to do this while experiencing high G. During high-G training, gravity of up to 5G, which is 5 times your own weight, is forced on your body, and we still have to be able to operate in a calm manner. Since I’m the Assistant Commander, I have to be able to operate the spacecraft if the Commander is incapacitated. This training really brought home the importance of my job once again.

My dream is about to come true

Q. Why did you want to become an astronaut in the first place?

Training to take photos of the vehicle body at the time of Space Shuttle’s docking.
Training to take photos of the vehicle body at the time of Space Shuttle’s docking.

I’ve had a longing for space since I was a child, and I wanted to work in space regardless of what it took. Apart from doing space experiments, I thought I could use the skills and knowledge that I’ve accumulated as a doctor if one of my teammates became sick. So I applied to become an astronaut candidate.

Q. It’s been 10 years since you were certified as an astronaut. When you look back, how do you feel? Have your thoughts on space changed in this period?

If I count from the time when I started training as an astronaut candidate, 12 years have passed. This is enough time for a child born when I started training to enter sixth grade, so I think it took me quite a long time to reach this point. But to put it another way, I think it was good that I had enough time to prepare. When I had just started to learn Russian, I was worried about whether I would ever be able to hold a technical discussion in that language, but now I’ve managed to reach the stage where I’m able to operate a Soyuz spacecraft safely. “Twelve years” sounds pretty long, but I always had something new I had to do and something to learn, and I concentrated on all these things, so when I look back, I feel like it was short.
My thoughts about space haven’t changed much since I applied to become an astronaut. After the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, I was uncertain about the future, but gradually I realized it’s pointless to worry about something I can’t control. I like the saying “endurance makes you stronger.” I wanted to keep getting closer to my goal little by little, by accumulating things I could do step by step.

Q. Is there anything you want to communicate to children through your mission?

I have three things I want to tell them. First, I’d like children to have an interest in a variety of things, whether space-related or not. Please try to find something you can be passionate about for in your daily life apart from academic subjects – such as sport, art, painting, music, etc. Then you will definitely find something you like, are good at, or are suited for.
The second thing is to have a dream. A dream, such as you want to do such and such kind of work in the future, or you want to become a person like so and so.
The third thing is to work toward that dream, even though it could be a long process with many steps. If your dream is big, it could be very difficult to achieve, and it may take a lot of time. Not all your dreams may come true. But if you hold onto your dream and continue to work towards it, I believe that it will come true in some form. As for my own dream, actually I was hoping to go to space aboard a Space Shuttle. That dream didn’t come true, but I have been able to make my dream come true by going to space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. Thus, I’d like everyone to make an effort toward their own dreams.

Setting forth in the footsteps of Wakata and Noguchi

Q. What have you learned from senior Japanese astronauts? Did they give you any advice?

Crew members of the ISS Expedition 28/29. (courtesy of JAXA/NASA)
Crew members of the ISS Expedition 28/29. (courtesy of JAXA/NASA)

I was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1999, and I have seen my senior astronauts’ work on various occasions. I’ve learned many things from them, but specifically I’ve learned that communication between crew members going to space together and the supporting staff on the ground is very important. It is important to perform well as a team while maintaining good communication.
Also, Astronaut Noguchi stayed in space for about six months starting December 2009, and took many photos of the Earth, which he distributed through his Twitter feed. His blog was very popular and I’ve learned about the importance of real-time output of information from space. I’m hoping to have the opportunity to do the same.
My senior astronauts advised me to keep my shoulders relaxed and to be myself. They told me to think it is real during training, and during the actual flight to try to think it’s training and relax. That’s easier said than done, but I’d like to bear this advice in mind and try my best.

Q. What is your goal beyond this long-term expedition mission?

Personally, I’d like to be involved in the development of Japan's own manned spacecraft. I’d like to use my experience in the operation of the Soyuz spacecraft and in this long-term expedition on the ISS to help develop a Japanese manned spaceship.

Q. What are your aspirations for the long-term stay on the ISS?

After 12 years of training, I’m very close to reaching my goal. My dream to work in space is close to coming true, and I’m getting very excited. At the same time, I am carrying a lot of responsibility. I’ll try my best to do my work in space for everyone. I hope I will have your support.

Satoshi Furukawa
JAXA Astronaut
Dr. Furukawa graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Tokyo in 1989. In 2000, he received a Ph.D. in Medical Science at the same university. From 1989 to 1999, he worked in the Department of Surgery at the University of Tokyo, as well as the Department of Anesthesiology at JR Tokyo General Hospital, the Department of Surgery at Ibaraki Prefectural Central Hospital and at Sakuragaoka Hospital. In 1999, NASDA (now part of JAXA) selected Dr. Furukawa as an astronaut for the ISS and he began basic training. In 2001, he was certified as a JAXA astronaut. In addition to his astronaut training, he has also participated in the development and operation of JEM Kibo. He was certified as a flight engineer for the Soyuz-TMA spacecraft in 2004, and as a Mission Specialist by NASA in 2006. In May 2008, he was appointed to the backup crew for ISS Expedition 22/23, which included Astronaut Soichi Noguchi, as well being made Flight Engineer for ISS Expedition 28/29.
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