It was the 1970s, a time when space exploration captured the global imagination. Star Trek and Star Wars had burst onto screens. Nasa had launched Voyager-1 to explore the outer solar system. In Japan’s Chiba prefecture, not far from the capital of Tokyo, a little girl, Naoko Yamazaki, sat on her living room couch transfixed at science fiction anime and dreamt about visiting space for herself.
More than three decades later, on April 5, 2010, Yamazaki, 39, donned a bright orange spacesuit and boarded the space shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Eight and a half minutes after lift-off she breached the “final frontier” – her childhood dream a reality.
Yamazaki became only the second Japanese woman (and 54th woman) to go to space. Sixty women have now accomplished the feat, some 10 per cent of the total number of astronauts.
Dozens of them were Asian, starting with Indian Rakesh Sharma who travelled in a Soyuz rocket and stayed in a low-orbit Soviet space station for seven days as part of the Intercosmos programme in 1984.
But for women, the path to space is not only tough, but also particularly solitary. When she was studying for her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Tokyo, she was one of only three female students out of 60 – it was more common for classes to have just one, or no women at all. “And, even now, 20 years later, it’s still the same,” she said.
Yamazaki traces this gender imbalance to high school, and mathematics in particular. “That’s when the girls seem to go off maths and with it, the hard sciences,” she said. The astronaut believes that even if there are some biological differences between girls and boys, cultural conditioning is a far more important trigger for these divergences. Girls have few role models in science. And none of the standard cues from society encourage them to work in the field.
Among developed countries, Japan is notorious for its gender imbalance. In the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report, it ranked a lowly 111 out of 144 countries . The culturally accepted norm is for women to stay at home once they become mothers. Yamazaki is therefore a real trailblazer. Her own mother, a housewife, was not educated beyond high school. And when the astronaut blasted off, she’d already been a mother herself for seven years, a fact that coined a Japanese neologism, mama-san uchuuhikooshi (mother astronaut).
Being a “mother astronaut” required a complex juggling act. She took her daughter with her to training in the United States whenever possible. At another point, her husband quit his job to stay at home with their child.
Yamazaki is now retired from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and is on the Japanese Cabinet Office’s Space Policy Committee. She hopes to return to space one day, perhaps with a private company like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Earlier this month, the visionary billionaire announced his company plans to fly two space tourists around the moon next year.
While the physical criteria for space travel have relaxed a bit – people with eyeglasses or teeth problems can now be cleared to make the ascent – Yamazaki emphasises that the one trait all astronauts still need in abundance is endurance. Psychological toughness is also non-negotiable, as is the ability to work in a group.
She was well aware of the life-threatening dangers. Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman in space, was one of the seven crew members who died when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry in 2003.
But Yamazaki was able to stay totally calm when her shuttle took off. “I was very excited and also very focused. I’d prepared a will, but had put it out of my mind.”
She spent 15 days in space, operating the robotic arm of the shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). She marvelled at how beautiful the earth was, and how all its diversity was ultimately unified. “I also felt very familiar, as though I was home. And I realised that space is actually everyone’s hometown,” she said.
The reality of the human relationship with space is arguably less edifying. The preponderance of rich, Western countries in space and the dominance of male astronauts has led critics to claim that the “human exploration” of space, is in fact white, male, colonisation.
Yamazaki, however, believes that space exploration must, out of necessity, be a global endeavour, since no one country has adequate resources to advance it on its own. She recalls how even in the height of the Cold War, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking mission of 1975 allowed for US-Russian cooperation.
Discussions are ongoing to decide what will replace the ISS project beyond 2024. Countries like India, China, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates will probably play an important role, in addition to the current partner agencies of the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia and Japan.
The 21st century has seen numerous Asian milestones in space. China became the third country to launch a manned spacecraft in 2003, and has announced about 30 orbital launches for this year. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully entered the Red Planet’s orbit in 2014 - making it the first Asian country to have achieved such a feat. And Japan is aiming to send its first lander to the moon in 2019.
All this heightened activity can also be linked to national military ambitions. Asia’s economic ascent has spurred military modernisations and arms acquisitions. Space exploration can be seen as one more manifestation of this competition. One day a nation with the upper hand in space might dominate the outcome of a war on Earth.
Yet Yamazaki remains sanguine. “Space is different from politics and economics. We are astronauts, not generals,” she said, insisting that exploring the cosmos is a common goal for all humanity. ■