Space mom wants equal opportunity for all

by Takao Ikeuchi and Kaori Saito

Kyodo News

Only a select few make it up into space, but for Naoko Yamazaki, Japan’s first mother to don an astronaut’s suit, it meant waiting over a decade after being selected and then facing a major family crisis as her husband put his own dreams on hold to realize hers.

The successful launch of space shuttle Discovery carrying 39-year-old Yamazaki and six other crew members on April 5 was a dream come true for her and her husband, Taichi, 37. It was made all the more special by the hurdles they both had to overcome.

The couple, who were at one point driven almost to divorce, recently published books on their experiences, calling for the creation of a society that does not require one partner to sacrifice his or her dreams for the other.

Yamazaki met her future husband while he was working at an aerospace firm. She was an aspiring astronaut, and he was hoping to become a controller for Japan’s Kibo lab on the International Space Station. They got married in 2000 and their daughter, Yuki, was born two years later.

Everything seemed to be on track until 2003, when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in midair while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, pushing Yamazaki’s dream of space flight back years.

Although her life up to that point had been centered in Japan, over the following years she had to undergo training in Russia and the United States. It was then that her husband decided to temporarily put his dreams aside to support her.

He quit his job and went to the United States with Yamazaki in 2004 to join her and start a new life there as a homemaker. But after being blocked from pursuing his own dreams because he couldn’t get a work permit, he became seriously depressed and even suicidal.

Feeling he was not getting enough support from his wife or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, his growing mistrust eventually led the couple to discuss divorce in 2007.

However, they decided to start over again as a family, and in November 2008, news arrived that Yamazaki had been selected to board the space shuttle.

But family relationships remained sensitive, and during a meeting with Japanese reporters who had gone to cover her training in Houston in March 2009, Yamazaki asked them not to refer to her as “Astronaut Mom” in their stories.

She was afraid that it might hurt her husband if the name became widely used and people started to think she was the only one working hard and juggling her work with child-rearing responsibilities.

“I think Japan’s support system for astronauts and their families is inadequate,” said Daido University President Akira Sawaoka, who has long been involved in Japan’s space programs.

With astronauts constantly leaving home for training and having to deal with sudden schedule changes, family stress is so high that NASA has a special section dedicated to supporting them.

“If Japan plans to be seriously involved in manned space exploration, it requires an environment that allows female astronauts to work without worries,” Sawaoka said.

The difficulties of balancing work and family life are not unique to the Yamazakis. The family’s tale has resonated with many working couples facing similar problems in Japan, including Yuko Obuchi, a 36-year-old Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and mother of two.

“After coming to know the difficulties they had underneath the surface, I have come to feel more sympathy and the desire to back them,” Obuchi said.

“We need to create a society in which husbands and wives, who temporarily give up on their dreams to support their partners, can resume following their own dreams,” she said.

Discovery’s launch in April came more than 11 years after Yamazaki was selected as an astronaut candidate in February 1999.