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Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009
A spaceman speaks
Japan's first professional astronaut, Mamoru Mohri, talks about his trips on the space shuttle, his key current role in emerging sciences, and his visions for Japan, humankind and robots in far distant realms
By EDAN CORKILL
When future historians document the story of Japanese space exploration, 2009 will likely figure as the year when the nation put two high-profile rocket launch failures, in 1999 and 2003, firmly behind it and, quite literally, took off.
In June, the nation's first blueprint for space development, the "Basic Plan for Space," was published. A month later, Koichi Wakata completed the longest stay of any Japanese in space — 4 1/2 months at the International Space Station (ISS). Before returning to Earth, the astronaut helped put the finishing touches to Japan's Kibo laboratory, a bus-size research module that is now the largest component of the ISS. And just three weeks ago came yet another enhancement of Japan's ISS presence, when the nation's HTV unmanned cargo vehicle launched from Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture successfully docked with the station — ushering in Japan's ability to service the ISS independently.
Watching all of this from his base at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo's bayside Odaiba district was Mamoru Mohri, who 17 years ago became the nation's first professional astronaut.
The 61-year-old chief executive director of Miraikan, as the museum is known, was also one of the authors of the national government's "Basic Plan for Space," and he currently serves on an advisory committee looking into Japan's plans for lunar exploration.
A native of Yoichi, Hokkaido, Mohri completed a PhD in vacuums and surface sciences at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1976. Around a decade later, in 1985, he was chosen by Japan's National Space Development Agency as one of three Japanese who would be sent to NASA in America to participate in space shuttle missions as part of Japan's involvement in the then-fledgling ISS project.
Mohri was chosen ahead of his two trainee-astronaut compatriots, Chiaki Mukai and Takao Doi, to be Japan's first astronaut, and served on the space shuttle Endeavor as a payload specialist in 1992. That flight had originally been slated for several years earlier, but it was delayed when Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986.
Interestingly, that tragic delay opened a window of opportunity for cashed-up, bubble-era Tokyo Broadcasting System to get the jump on the national space program. In 1989, TBS paid the Soviet Union to accept journalist Toyohiro Akiyama as a passenger on their Soyuz spacecraft, and when Akiyama spent eight days in orbit a year later, he garnered the twin honors of becoming the first Japanese national to go into space — and also the world's first "space reporter."
Nonetheless, it was Mohri's 1992 voyage — the first such national endeavor — that truly captured the imagination of tens of millions of Japanese.
Speaking last month in his office at Miraikan, Mohri reminisced to The Japan Times about that trip and his second Endeavor mission, in 2000. He also discussed how he thinks Japan should formulate its space projects in the future considering the planned retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in 2010, the scheduled completion of the ISS in 2011 and the rapid emergence of China's and India's own space-exploration programs over the last few years.
Mohri also discussed how Miraikan will help to turn those visions into reality.
Your research in Australia was not directly related to space. How did you end up becoming an astronaut?
I only realized afterward, but vacuums and surface sciences — my fields of study — had actually emerged as a result of the 1960s and '70s Apollo program to send people to the moon. Before Apollo there were no pumps capable of creating the kind of (total) vacuum found in space, but through the Apollo missions they created new vacuum pumps. This led to all kinds of scientific applications, particularly with regard to vacuum cohesion between two surfaces.
So, I got my doctorate in Australia in 1976 and then came back to Japan. A combined research program into nuclear fusion had just begun between the United States and Japan, and I was chosen as one of the Japanese researchers to work on that.
Then, in the middle of my doing that research, they called for applications from people interested in becoming astronauts. So I applied.
By then I believe you were back in Hokkaido, where you were born, working at Hokkaido University in Sapporo?
Had you always dreamed of going into space?
Mine was the generation that grew up watching the U.S. and Russian space programs develop. I was in junior high school when Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space (on Apr. 12, 1961). I still have a photo of me standing beside the television with Gagarin on the screen.
How did you feel watching all that unfold?
I admired them all so much, and aspired to do the same. But at the same time I just assumed that it was only military people who would ever be sent into space. I also assumed it was only Americans and Russians who would go. I thought it had nothing to do with Japan.
So, how did it end up having something to do with Japan — and, in particular, with you?
In 1969, the year Neil Armstrong went to the moon, Japan's space agency — the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) — was established. That was the first time that Japan, as a nation, started taking a serious interest in space.
During the 1970s, Japan became one of the leading launchers of satellites. Then came the 1980s, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced that America would make a space station, and he brought European countries, Canada and Japan on board as partners. At that time Japan's prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, agreed that Japan would participate in the International Space Station project, and the first step was to get a Japanese astronaut into space.
More than 500 Japanese people applied to NASDA to become one of the country's first astronauts. Three were selected. Why were you one of them?
One reason was that they wanted an astronaut who could conduct experiments related to materials — the kind of work I had specialized in.
The other reason was that I had been to Australia.
When I went to NASA to be interviewed (a shortlist of seven Japanese applicants selected by NASDA were interviewed at NASA), I think the fact that I had been to Australia and lived in an international community worked in my favor. You know, in the space shuttle you have to live in a small space with lots of different people from different backgrounds. There weren't many Japanese at the time with that sort of experience. Nowadays, of course, many people have studied overseas.
The other thing was that I was the youngest of eight siblings, so I knew how to operate in a group!
In 1986, the year after you were chosen, the Challenger disaster occurred. That must have been shocking. Did you not consider resigning?
By that time I was married with three children. I had been an assistant professor at Hokkaido University (in Sapporo), so I was in a really good, secure position. Before I left Hokkaido to join NASDA, I realized that somewhere along the line I might be tempted to change my mind — I might get cold feet and want to go back to Hokkaido. So, I deliberately sold everything! I quit the job and sold the apartment we were living in — so I removed everything that I could possibly want to go back to.
When the accident happened, just three months after I moved to Tokyo, I really had nowhere to go back to, so I didn't consider it an option.
Was your family not worried about your safety?
One of my children had only just been born, and the others were aged 1 and 2. If anything, my wife wanted me to hurry up and get on with my work as an astronaut in order to support her and all the children!
You've said elsewhere that when you did go into space, in 1992, you spent most of your time like "an experiment-conducting robot." Did you feel you were under enormous pressure, considering all the money that had been spent?
There was a lot of pressure. You know, press one wrong button and a ¥100-million experiment would be written off. I had just eight days in space and 34 experiments I needed to complete on behalf of Japanese researchers.
Were you so busy that you didn't have time to sit back and just say to yourself, "Wow, I'm in space"?
Every night I'd shut myself in my sleeping compartment, in my sleeping bag. The first night I had my "Wow!" moment. It was so exciting. But, at the same time, on that very first day we had a problem with some of the equipment, so I didn't want to divert myself too much from the tasks I needed to complete.
I saw a TV documentary about your mission, and you apparently solved the equipment problem within a day. After that you were so busy that the mission commander, Robert Gibson, said you were getting twice as much done as a normal person. Was that true?
When you first get into space your mind loses focus — it is part of the process of adapting to being in a gravity-free environment. So it takes more time to do things in space than it does on Earth. I think I was only doing as much as I would do on Earth — it just took more time. I did work a lot, though — so I didn't have too much time to look at space.
But when you did have a few spare moments to look out the window, what did you think?
At first I was just amazed how dark it was. It was darker than anything else I'd ever seen. But when I looked at the Earth it was so beautiful — blue and round. Just like Gagarin had said, it was a blue planet. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. But the other thing I thought, when I looked at red areas of land like mountains, was that the Earth resembled cells seen through a microscope. It was just what I saw when doing experiments. It was really strange. Really massive forms came to resemble the tiniest things.