Top: During Discovery
’s voyage to the International Space Station, Naoko Yamazaki and Soichi Noguchi demonstrate the effects of weightlessness in the Japanese experiment module, Kibo. The flight marked the first time two Japanese astronauts have traveled together in space. Bottom: Yamazaki. Photos courtesy Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Even as a small child, Japanese astronaut and former Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar Naoko Yamazaki found outer space fascinating. From her home in Matsudo City outside Tokyo, she spent evenings stargazing. As she grew older, movies like Star Wars and TV broadcasts of shuttle launches fueled her growing interest.
“Based on these shows, I assumed we would all go to space,” says Yamazaki, who is only the second Japanese woman to become an astronaut.
Yamazaki has logged more than 360 hours in space as a crew member on the space shuttle Discovery . In April, she served as mission specialist on the STS-131 Discovery ’s resupply mission to the International Space Station. The trip held special meaning for Yamazaki.
“I was part of the project team that developed the space station,” she says. “It’s very impressive, especially when you consider more than 15 countries, including Japan and the United States, helped build it.”
The chance to work on international projects as a 1994-95 Rotary Scholar contributed to Yamazaki’s career choice. She studied space robotics at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, USA, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Matsudo Chuoh, Chiba, Japan. Working with students from around the world, she was surprised to learn that they knew more about Japan and Japanese culture than she did. The experience taught her more about not only her own country but also the value of an objective viewpoint, which she believes is relevant in her work as an astronaut.
“You can learn so much more about the earth by studying it from a distance,” she says.
During her scholarship year, Yamazaki says, she also learned the importance of communication skills, preparation, and teamwork. These skills served her well when she began her aeronautical career in 1996 at the National Space Development Agency of Japan (now called Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).
“In the space program, communication is key to sharing information and working efficiently. It’s the same when you’re studying abroad, especially when you’re trying to communicate in a foreign language,” Yamazaki says.
Preparing for her space flight took nearly 10 years and included training in Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States. After finishing basic training, she went to Russia for seven months to qualify as a flight engineer on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Since her return to Earth, Yamazaki has been involved in postflight activities, including visiting NASA centers, participating in technical meetings to discuss the orbit, and taking part in public relations work.
“The space station will operate until 2020, so I hope I get a chance to return,” she says.
In the meantime, Yamazaki will continue to support other missions and the space station from the ground. And when she gets a spare moment, she’ll spend time with her family watching her favorite film series, Star Wars.
Written for Reconnections.