National | New Year Special 2019

Former astronaut Naoko Yamazaki hopeful for commercial space travel

The year 2019 marks 50 years since the first humans landed on the moon in 1969 as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar mission. In an interview with Managing Editor Sayuri Daimon, former Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki shares her experience in space in 2010 and her views on space development in the coming years.


Former astronaut Naoko Yamazaki hopes to open Asia’s first spaceport, which will serve as a hub for space planes for travelers, in Japan as early as 2021. She believes that a new age of space tourism where ordinary people, not only astronauts, will be able to travel beyond Earth is just around the corner.

In July, she co-founded the Space Port Japan Association, an organization to support efforts to open spaceports in Japan through collaboration with companies, groups and government institutions. Member companies include Airbus Japan K.K., ANA Holdings Inc., Marubeni Corp., Mitsui Fudosan Co. and SKY Perfect JSAT Corp.

“There are rocket launching sites in Japan, but what we are envisioning is a spaceport where tourists will be able to leave for space, just like hopping onto an airplane to travel abroad, and return to Earth,” Yamazaki, who is one of 11 Japanese astronauts who have been to space, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Although such spacecraft is still under development, Virgin Galactic, a spaceflight company under Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic group, has succeeded as the fourth spaceflight experiment aiming to operate commercial spaceflight in the future, she said.

“A commercial space travel service will soon start in the United States and if that happens, there will be a move to open spaceports in other countries. So we’d like to create Asia’s first spaceport in Japan,” said Yamazaki, 48, who now serves as the organization’s representative director, adding that Virgin Galactic is likely to obtain approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as early as this year.

To qualify as a spaceport, a facility has to have a runway of 3,000 meters or more, the ability to store fuel for space planes and hangers for maintenance. This means most existing international airports can be converted to spaceports.

But to realize such space travel, Yamazaki said Japan lacks a legal framework to enable manned spaceflight as existing laws only cover unmanned space probes. The country also needs to scrutinize safety and costs involved in such space travel.

“People who go to space will be different from passengers on airplanes. They must agree on the mission and participate based on the principle of self-responsibility. If people who are not astronauts are to participate in such spaceflights, we need to drastically improve the safety of those commercial operations,” she said.

Yamazaki is the second Japanese female and Japan’s first mother to go into space. In 1999, she joined the National Space Development Agency of Japan, currently the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and participated in an International Space Station (ISS) assembly and resupply mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 2010.

“To be an astronaut was my dream from my childhood,” Yamazaki said. She was a girl who liked to stargaze and loved the TV anime series “Uchu Senkan Yamato” (“Space Battleship Yamato”), which became the TV animation series “Star Blazers” in the U.S. in the late 1970s.

When she was in junior high school, she saw the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on TV, which broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members, in 1986. Though it came as a shock to the teenager, she realized at that time that space travel is not something that only exists in science fiction, and she eventually felt that she wanted to fulfill the mission of those who died in the accident.

However, it took 11 years before she was selected as an astronaut candidate to go into space.

She had to go through an extensive training program to prepare for her space mission, and she said 90 percent of the training was how to deal with unexpected accidents.

One part of the program was survival training in Russia during a bitterly cold winter on the assumption that a Russian Soyuz spacecraft had landed in a snowy field hundreds of kilometers away from the planned landing site.

“Under such circumstances, a rescue team would not be able to reach us quickly, and we had to survive for three days with just items from the spacecraft,” Yamazaki said.

Using an axe from the Soyuz capsule, Yamazaki and her fellow astronauts chopped wood and made a small fire. They were also told not to consume any food on the first day as they only had three days worth of food and they might have to survive for longer. The temperature was about minus 20 degrees Celsius and it was freezing cold, she said.

Another requirement for astronauts was to swim at least 75 meters while fully clothed and tread water for 10 minutes while also clothed.

Yamazaki said that she didn’t have any problems at all during the training and in space as a female astronaut, but as a mother, how to manage astronaut training and child-rearing could sometimes be difficult.

“I had to get a lot of support from my husband, colleagues and friends in the neighborhood, as well as people in JAXA and NASA to take care of my daughter,” she said, adding that it would not have been possible without their support. Thanks to NASA’s family support program, she often used their consulting service to discuss family-related issues.

After such a lengthy training period, her longtime dream finally came true on April 5, 2010.

Asked how she felt when she left the Earth, she said it only took eight and a half minutes after launch to reach space.

“As soon as we reached space, I looked through the window and saw the Earth shining,” she said. “It was blue and shining, and I felt like the Earth itself was alive. I could see blue in the ocean in contrast with very white clouds during the day, and they shone more in the sunlight. It was more beautiful than I had imagined.”

During the 15 days in space, her main job was to send necessary supplies to the ISS, which was nearing completion. She operated the robotic arms to install the logistics module called Leonardo carried on the space shuttle. After installation, she delivered equipment for experiments to the station.

She said the space shuttle orbits the Earth every 90 minutes.

“You see the sunrise and sunset 16 times each day, and it was hard to keep track of time,” the former astronaut said.

Yamazaki, who is now involved in policy-making as a member of the Cabinet Office’s Space Policy Committee, said space development activities by Japan will further increase this year and beyond.

In 2017, the Japanese government adopted a policy package “Space Industry Vision 2030,” in which Japan aims to double the market scale of the domestic space industry by as early as the 2030s.

Yamazaki said compared to other countries, Japan has comprehensive strength in space development with its advanced rocket launching technology, experience in sending astronauts to the ISS for long periods and space probes like the Hayabusa2, which is an asteroid sample-return mission operated by JAXA.

The latest success in bringing back experiment results from the ISS using a capsule ejected from space cargo vessel Konotori was also a significant step for Japan’s space industry, she said.

“If we can apply this technology to a larger manned mission, this may enable us to send people to space and bring them back to Earth,” she said.

The U.S., Russia and China already have such technology to collect individuals and objects from Earth’s orbit and send them back to Earth.

“But it is only Lockheed Martin Corp. and Japan that have the ability to collect objects from the moon, Mars and asteroids beyond the Earth’s orbit, and that’s why this Japanese technology stands out,” she said.

Yamazaki hopes that more and more companies and people will be able to utilize space and its assets such as images and data captured by satellites in the future.

“We are now exchanging opinions with people in different industries, including those in agriculture, distribution and marine products, where we didn’t have close contact before,” she said. “It’s an exciting time.”


Download the PDF of this New Year Special

Listen to an interview with Naoko Yamazaki on the Deep Dive podcast.