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Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

SOARING AMBITIONS

Japan's pioneers of new space age


Staff writer

So what kind of people will be Japan's first space tourists?

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"Mission commander"-in-waiting, Taichi Yamazaki. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The first up of around 20 intrepid Japanese individuals was to have been former Livedoor Co. executive Daisuke "Dice-K" Enomoto, who was slated to fly on the Russian Soyuz in September, making him the world's fourth space tourist to enjoy an orbital flight for $20 million.

But to his undoubted chagrin, and apparently due to his health, the IT whiz kid was replaced by Iranian-American IT businesswoman Anousheh Ansari less than a month before his scheduled liftoff. Rumor says Enomoto fell foul of a kidney stone problem, that his money may not be returned, and that he is waiting for another chance to fly.

But the likes of Enomoto are rare, since very few of even the world's richest can afford to spend so much money and time -- up to eight months training -- to jump aboard a Soyuz. For the remaining 20 or so Japanese would-be astrotourists, suborbital flights costing $102,000 to $250,000 have to suffice.

Nonetheless, though such flights may only include a few minutes' time in space, the experience is still unique. Passengers go through three days of training for gravity-resistance, using a simulator, and are guaranteed a lot of media attention -- especially if they take one of the first flights after 2008.

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Noriaki Inami, who is set to be one of Japan's first space tourists, jokes with Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic spacecraft (above left) he will go on. PHOTOS COURTESY OF NORIAKI INAMI; VIRGIN GALACTIC

Among those now on the threshold of suborbiting, none fits the image of the excited space tourist more than Noriaki Inami. An employee of a foreign-affiliated computer firm, Inami, 29, is booked on a 22-million yen trip that Virgin Atlantic's British founder Sir Richard Branson plans to offer on his Virgin Galactic.

In May 2005, Inami applied for Virgin's single "founder seat" reserved for the Japanese market, which was one of the first 100 seats sold worldwide. Although he initially missed out in the lottery, he received a phone call two days later congratulating him for being a winner -- after Virgin increased the Japanese allocation due to a higher-than-expected response. The other Japanese space tourist who booked with Virgin, Inami said, is a 77-year-old woman whose husband was a successful businessman, but who does not want to appear in the media.

In one of his blog entries, Inami excitedly reports that American celebrity Paris Hilton is also booked in the Virgin tour. But he also expresses concern that Hilton, like him, will have to wear a diaper as there are no toilets in the Virgin spacecraft.

Both a mission and a door to his future

In sharp contrast to Inami is Taichi Yamazaki, 34. In his case, the suborbital flight he has booked on a U.S.-based Rocketplane Kistler Inc. vehicle has became both a mission and a door to his future.

Yamazaki, who was being trained at Mitsubishi Space Software Co. to become earth-based air-traffic controller for Kibou, the Japanese module planned to dock with the International Space Station, married Naoko Sumino, 36, in 2000, after she had been selected the year before to be Japan's second female astronaut. Consequently, space was a dream for both of them.

Since they got married, though, the couple have hardly been able to spend any time together due to Naoko's schedule, which takes her on long training assignments in both Russia and the U.S. Also, after their daughter was born in 2002, Yamazaki found it a huge burden to raise her almost alone in Japan, so he quit his job and moved to the U.S.

He soon regretted his move. Not only was he having problems getting a work permit, but his wife's employer, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, didn't help at all, even though other families also experienced similar problems.

"They could have helped us apply for a visa, find a job -- or just be empathetic. But they did nothing," he said, pointing out the stark difference from the conditions at NASA, which has a very helpful family support office.

Dismayed by all this, Yamazaki returned to Japan, but then, at a space conference he attended in Los Angeles in 2006, he met officials from Rocketplane Kistler Inc. -- and decided to set his sights on being a freelance suborbital "mission commander" when the flights become a reality in 2008. Rocketplane Kistler is so far the only company planning to allow commercial use of its flights by people like Yamazaki, who sees himself shooting TV commercials or being contracted to conduct experiments in space.

But that's not the limit of Yamazaki's ambition, as he says he secretly hopes to go into space before his wife.

"I don't like the assumption that astronauts on state missions have higher priorities than others. I want people to recognize the difficulties facing those who realize it through their own efforts," he said.


See related links:
Get out of this world
It's high time for Japan to ride the space-tourism wave




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