Naoko Yamazaki made space history not only as the second woman astronaut from Japan, but also by participating in the record-setting 2010 NASA space shuttle mission STS-131 to the International Space Station, or ISS. Launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., the mission marked the first time that four women were together in the ISS at once. It set a record as the longest Discovery space shuttle mission as well, lasting more than 15 days.
Yamazaki, 50, was born in Chiba, near Tokyo, but spent her childhood on the northern island of Hokkaido. Later, she began focusing on her love of learning STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Ochanomizu Girls High School in Tokyo, where, she says, “there was no unconscious gender bias at school” against girls taking such courses. After earning both a B.S. and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1996, she began working for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). In 1999, she was selected as an astronaut-candidate in Japan and began her journey in international space travel.
Since retiring from JAXA in 2011, Yamazaki has been active in bringing the space perspective to a variety of arenas worldwide. A member of the EarthShot Prize Council, a global environment project, Yamazaki practices an astronaut’s “citizen diplomacy,” as she calls it, which includes promoting the application of experiential knowledge and technology of space ecosystems for solving Earth’s environmental issues. She thinks that space diplomacy can contribute much value to global diplomacy, especially to both environmental diplomacy and science diplomacy in planetary and outer-space affairs.
In fact, the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, originating in 1967, provides a basis for international space diplomacy. The UN is becoming more important in this area, she said, “since we need an international order in space development with more players involved,” given increased commercial exploration and personal flights recently.
In Japan, Yamazaki advises the government on space policy and promotes the teaching of STEM among youths, especially young women. She co-founded the Space Port Japan Association in 2018, which promotes the country’s aeronautics industry. She also teaches, lectures widely in schools and science museums and contributes her expertise as an astronaut-citizen-diplomat in many forums. Recently, she was a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
Currently, she is a visiting professor at Joshibi University of Art and Design, teaching a course on space, humans and art. Yamazaki lives near Tokyo and has two daughters, Yuki, who was her only child during her training era, and Mirai, who was born after Yamazaki’s space mission.
Over the course of several days in June and July, Yamazaki corresponded by phone and email with PassBlue about a range of questions, just as Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Unity took a suborbital flight on July 11, with two women and two men in the cabin (including Richard Branson, the company’s founder). This week, one woman aviator, Wally Funk, who is 82, flew with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and others into space onboard the Blue Origin capsule.
That means only 68 women among approximately 600 astronauts have flown in space. Yamazaki said, “I look forward to seeing more and more people flying to space and feeling the miracle of our home planet.”
The interview is the second of PassBlue’s new series, Women as Changemakers, focusing on individuals who are influencing global matters in profound ways. The interview has been slightly edited and condensed. — ELIZABETH COLTON
What important influences from your childhood inspired your life work?
Yamazaki: Though I was born in Chiba, which is a suburb of Tokyo, in 1970, I spent my childhood in Hokkaido, a northern island in Japan. As the sky was clear there, early on I got impressed with the beautiful stars and interested in space.
What from your school education influenced your later decision to apply to become an astronaut?
Yamazaki: In Japan, the ratio of women in STEM is very low, less than 10 percent for engineering, especially. However, I went to a high school in Tokyo for girls, Ochanomizu Girls High School, where almost half the students chose STEM, so it was fortunate. The school did not focus on STEM only, but many of the students, like me, chose to focus on STEM courses probably because there was no unconscious gender bias at school. Also, from early on, I enjoyed reading lots of science fiction books.
How and when did you decide to become an astronaut?
Yamazaki: It was at age 15 when I saw the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on TV that I realized there was an actual space program, not only in sci-fi. Though Challenger was a tragedy, I still wanted to be involved in space development and to become an astronaut someday. That was when I decided to work to become an astronaut.
What were other lasting dreams you have had for your life and your life’s work?
Yamazaki: To become a teacher is my lasting dream, and that’s why I have dedicated myself to space education, supporting the Young Astronaut Club and some science museums.
What were the major obstacles you faced and overcame to become an astronaut?
Yamazaki: When I first applied for the astronaut group [in Japan], I did not make it. Then I was selected three years later, on my second trial. The major obstacle seems to be to take a first step to go beyond your comfortable zone and try a new horizon.
What were your most powerful, lasting feelings from when you were in space and saw planet Earth in the bigger universe?
Yamazaki: Before going to space, space was a special and admirable place for me. However, when I saw our Earth in the vast universe, it seemed the Earth was a special and miracle place in this universe. It was a 180-degree perspective change.
What in your training and experience in outer space do you consider most valuable for your use now in all your work?
Yamazaki: I learned the importance of being proactive as both a leader and a follower during my training. Each person should be a good leader and a good follower, depending on the situation for solid team building.
How can an astronaut work for world peace?
Yamazaki: International cooperation is the key for space exploration. An African proverb says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.’ The role of astronauts would be to emphasize that we are all crew members of the Spaceship Earth, and we need to cooperate.
What are your ideas about the importance and value of space diplomacy in our world?
Yamazaki: Space is a common frontier and property of all humankind. Therefore, though the importance of space security is increasing, it is an area where we tend to cooperate easily. Through space diplomacy, I hope the world will be able to unite more.
Why should national governments fund space missions?
Yamazaki: Space is a common frontier of human beings. It is an investment for the future.
Should the United Nations play a more active role in promoting outer-space exploration?
Yamazaki: The role of the UN is becoming more important, since we need an international order in space development with more players involved.
Why should space diplomacy be a part of a nation’s foreign policy and part of the UN’s mission?
Yamazaki: Space is property shared by all humankind. However, it is also true sometimes: first come, first served. Therefore, again, international order is important. Yet, since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, it is getting difficult to have a consensus among all nations. Thus, alliance among nations that share common values is becoming more important, and diplomacy is playing a bigger role in space.
What about space diplomacy for a nation such as Japan and the global sustainable development goals?
Yamazaki: Japan is a small country with few natural resources. Therefore, research and development are vital. And since space systems are becoming larger, we need to cooperate more efficiently to use our resources wisely.
What is the role of space diplomacy for promoting environmental sustainability and saving our environment on Earth and outer space?
Yamazaki: The Earth looks alive itself. However, it does not have its eyes, ears, nor hands. By launching satellites and getting their images and sensor data of the Earth, we humans seem to be playing the role of its eyes and ears to have a better and objective understanding of the Earth.
What updates need to be added to the Outer Space Treaty, which provides the basic framework on international space law, was initiated with the United States, Russia and Britain as the first signatories and now has 111 countries party to it? What are potential threats in outer space from unregulated private exploration?
Yamazaki: With more commercial space activities happening, the Outer Space Treaty and other guidelines will need to incorporate those commercial aspects as well, so that public-private partnership will be enhanced.
What is the mission of the Space Port Japan Association that you co-founded in 2018?
Yamazaki: The mission is to make space accessible for more people by opening multiple spaceports in Japan and becoming a hub in Asia. The spaceports will become centers of space education, culture and various services as well.
How might your vision for an ecosystem in space help Earth?
Yamazaki: Onboard the International Space Station, we recycle water and atmosphere. And we are working on space agriculture. This know-how in such a closed environmental ecosystem will be beneficial to the Earth to make it sustainable.
From your view of outer space, what is your advice for our world?
Yamazaki: I was impressed with the miracle of the Earth and with the power of human beings when I approached the ISS onboard the space shuttle and saw the ISS over the window. It seemed like a symbol of international collaboration and human civilization. If we put our efforts together, we will be able to make the impossible possible, like the moonshot in the Apollo program.
In an article in the Asian Scientist in 2017, you mentioned that your daughter, Yuki, observed some of your training as an astronaut. What aspects did she observe, and what were her reactions?
Yamazaki: Yuki observed my Extravehicular Activity (EVA) training under the water. When she tried a motion simulation ride of the space shuttle, she was very excited.
What is your advice for women wanting to become astronauts or other leaders for global cooperation?
Yamazaki: I greatly appreciate various efforts made by many women pioneers working in various international fields. We are connecting buttons. Let’s enjoy challenges and expand our frontier working together.
What are some of your favorite pastimes, including anything special you did while in the space station?
Yamazaki: I brought a small koto, a Japanese traditional guitar with 13 strings, to the ISS, and enjoyed playing it during my free time onboard. I also enjoy calligraphy.
You said you believed in the great value of teaching. What are some ways you are teaching now?
Yamazaki: I currently teach as a visiting professor at Joshibi University of Art and Design, where there is a space, humans and art course. I am also giving some lectures at scientific museums for the public. I like teaching the wonder of space and the fact that knowing space widens our perspective towards the Earth.
Would you like to go again to outer space? Is your interest in space part of your daily life still?
Yamazaki: Sure, of course. There is no upper age limit to go to space. My current activities in Space Port Japan Association, Space Policy Committee and space education are major parts of my life. Space is not a faraway place, but it is like our hometown, because we are all made of star staff and are all children of the universe.