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Mamoru Mohri: 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?

That’s right.

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.

Were you not scared being so far from home? If you turned around to look away from planet Earth, you were faced with total nothingness.

On my first trip to space I didn’t really have time to get scared — I was just so happy to be there and I was so busy conducting experiments. You only get scared when you’ve got time to get scared. On my second mission, in 2000, my job was to make a three-dimensional map of the Earth, so I was looking at the Earth most of the time. But one time, I was in the loading bay and it occurred to me that there was just one single steel sheet separating me from the vastness of space. In other places in the space shuttle there were several layers, but there it was just one metal plate. It was so cold to touch. At that time I kind of shuddered, but that was the only time.

You were the first astronaut to go into space as part of a national Japanese program. What was the significance of a Japanese astronaut going into space? What do you think it meant for Japan as a country?

First, there is a practical significance in having several countries involved in programs like the ISS. When the Challenger accident occurred in 1986, and then when the Columbia shuttle disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, American space exploration activities essentially stopped. It was only because Russia had come on board that the ISS was still able to function — as it could be serviced by Soyuz spacecraft. For that reason it is better to have several countries involved, and so Japan, too, has an important role to play.

Also, if you consider that when someone goes into space, they are going as representatives of the human race rather than of any single country, then it is also important to have several countries involved. Even with something like building the ISS, the American conception of a space station is different to the Japanese, which is different to the Russian and the European. The Americans have a frontier mentality, whereas Japanese see it as a kind of logical extension of human life. The more countries that are involved in contributing their own styles of space exploration, the better it is, I think.

On a domestic level, too, the Japanese people benefit from this kind of program. The Japanese have not been educated to think in terms of the human race. They tend to think just about themselves. So, I think through our contributions to the ISS, we will start to gain an appreciation of our position within the human race.

What about on a personal level — were you proud?

There was of course an element of pride. But, still, it was slightly tempered.

Let me tell you a quick story: The other day I went to the Showa Base, a Japanese station in Antarctica. It takes five days to get down there — you go from South Africa, through the Russian base, the Belgian base and the Norwegian base, then finally you get to the Showa Station. On the last stage, you have to cross over onto East Ongul Island, where the base is located. We were waiting and a JSDF helicopter appeared, emblazoned with the Japanese flag. I was so struck by the fact that it was a Japanese helicopter, I cried.

Up until that point, all the training and space exploration in which I had been involved had basically been conducted by NASA. I had always been completely in the hands of the United States — their Navy, their Air Force, NASA. If something had ever happened to me, it would have been the Americans, with their Stars and Stripes flying, who would come and rescue me. But when I went to Antarctica and saw the Japanese flag on that helicopter, I suddenly thought, “Oh, this is different.” Japan had got down there under its own steam.

Japan has just sent the Kibo research lab up to the ISS. Currently, there’s a lot of discussion about what Japan should do next in space. How do you think it should it use the ISS? Should it engage in lunar exploration? What do you think the ideal approach would be?

I’m a realist. I understand the limits of the Japanese and of Japanese society. I think limitations, be they financial or whatever, must always come before ideals.

The first thing I think Japan should focus on is the achievement of manned space flights. But that needs to be part of an international program. Japan cannot do it alone. Going into space is dangerous. You need to have a far-reaching support system on Earth to deal with any eventualities. In other words, you need a military, like the U.S. Navy and Air Force. In Japan, the use of the military in space programs has always been prohibited — first by the 1969 law that established NASDA, and now by the 2002 law that established its current incarnation, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). That’s why it is difficult for Japan to launch manned flights. The other reason, of course, is that it costs a lot of money. But if you tackle the project in partnership with other countries, then it becomes possible.

On Sept. 11, for the first time ever, Japan sent the unmanned H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), up from Tanegashima Space Center to the ISS. Meanwhile, America is at the stage of retiring its space shuttle fleet.

I think Japan’s HTV should be reconfigured to carry people, and if that could be done in collaboration with the U.S., then the ISS could be serviced even without the space shuttles. Of course, there would always be the Russian Soyuz program, but, as I said, it is dangerous to have just one system.

So, that’s what I hope will happen.

Many people see China proceeding with its own manned space programs, and they worry that Japan is being left behind.

There are people who say that Japan should do manned flights by itself — because China already does, India is planning to, and there is this fear of North Korea. But I think it is simply unrealistic, and inappropriate too, because it would require the participation of the military, and that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. And it would simply cost too much.

However, that is not to say that Japan should not do any space development by itself. I believe Japan should conduct scientific exploration, of the moon, for example, by itself. But it could do that with unmanned flights.

Moon exploration is an endeavor in which Japan could make an entirely original and new contribution. The answer is the use of robots.

Commander Neil Armstrong went to the moon exactly 40 years ago, and made “one giant leap for mankind.” Now, we could send a humanoid robot up there to make an even greater leap.

Japan’s technology for bipedal robots is the most developed in the world. That technology can be traced back to cultural icons, such as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy). Do you know the anime character?

Of course.

Japanese researchers have always been interested in creating two-legged robots, and they have been working on them for many years. Neither American nor European researchers have ever been that interested in humanoid robots.

In addition, robots are a potentially lucrative industry, and that is important because I think this kind of project must be carried out as a collaboration between the government and the private sector. Companies such as Honda and Toyota, which already have fantastic robots, could become involved.

How exactly would that work? Say you send Honda’s Asimo to the moon, wouldn’t it just end up being a partially government-funded advertisement for Honda?

No, it would be as part of a national strategy for space development, so the brand will always be “Japan.” One company would work on the robot, others on different aspects of the program. JAXA would need to take the lead role in integrating it all. Then of course all the technology that those companies develop for the program would remain with them, and they could use it as they pleased.

There were so many new technologies that emerged out of the Apollo program! The vacuum technology I mentioned earlier was just one example. In the same way, the use of robots in extreme environments is a field that could benefit enormously from robotic lunar exploration.

Most of the space robots that other countries are working on at the moment resemble centipedes and things like that — that is the most practical shape. To be honest, if you talk to people who work in space programs, they tend to dismiss the idea of using humanoid robots as fanciful. But in the future, it is essential that Japan’s space programs remain completely transparent and open. They need to be able to win the support of the public, excite the imagination, and inspire dreams in children.

I think sending a two-legged, walking robot like Astro Boy would be more likely to inspire dreams than sending a centipede.

The Japanese government’s Basic Plan for Space, which was published in June this year, and which you helped to put together, also discusses the desirability of conducting lunar exploration by robot — although it doesn’t mention Astro Boy. However, since then there has been a change in government. Do you expect Japan’s space plans to continue in the same direction?

If anything, those plans might accelerate. The Basic Plan was not just a project of the [recently ousted] Liberal Democratic Party — it involved all political parties. And now, for the first time, in Yukio Hatoyama we have a prime minister with a background in science — so, who knows?

What role will Miraikan, of which you are the director, have to play in Japan’s future space program?

Miraikan is run by the national government, so we are able to bring together the very best technology from scientists and researchers from around the country in an impartial and comprehensive manner. We could, for example, show the Japanese people the process by which the Japanese government works with private industry to send a humanoid robot to the moon. We could present the ideas and the dreams, the visions of such a program.

With the manned missions, we could show the Japanese people exactly how we are collaborating with other countries, how Japanese are playing a role in an international program — as members of the human race. That in itself is an important message to get across to the domestic audience.

We’ve already started with that kind of work. More than 100 astronauts from around the world have visited us here at Miraikan already. About 70 came at once for an astronauts’ conference.

Seventy astronauts in a room at one time!

Yes, I don’t think there’s any other space museum in the world that has had so many astronauts visit.

Did you have to tether them all to the ground in order to stop them floating around?

You know, I really wish we could make a gravity-free room!

But, on a serious note, future Japanese space exploration programs will need to keep focused on those two aspects: the Japanese position within the human race, and potential business applications. Miraikan can help make both of those a reality.

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