Thu. May 19th, 2022

Naoko Yamazaki, 51, joined the National Space Development Agency of Japan (now JAXA) in 1996 and worked on several engineering projects before entering space in 2010 with the Nasa Discovery shuttle. She is co-founder of the Space Port Japan Association.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
I dreamed of becoming a teacher. When I was a kid, there were no Japanese astronauts, so I did not think about becoming an astronaut.

Private school or public school? University or straight to work?
State schools and then the University of Tokyo. Ochanomizu High School was just for girls, there was no unconscious prejudice or gender perspectives, so it was very natural for me to take engineering. I was interested in space as a child. When I was in high school, I watched the launch of the spacecraft Challenger. It was a very shocking accident. When I found out that Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was on board, and that she wanted to give a lecture from space, it connected my two favorite things: space and education.

Who was or still is your mentor?
So many people, especially my university supervisor. Professor Shinichi Nakasuka told me that engineering is a way to make dreams take shape.

How physically fit are you?
I jog and do yoga, so I think I’m pretty fit. I’m trying to be!

Ambition or talent: what matters more to success?
I would say ambition comes first because skills can come later. For astronauts specifically, it’s never too late to learn.

How politically committed are you?
I try to be politically aware because our social systems are politically dependent. When I started working, the law of gender equality was already established in Japan, but not enough to encourage women to continue working after marriage or to have a child. It is gradually improving, thanks to political activities. We need to regulate and motivate every sector to work on climate change. And I’m a member of the space policy committee in Japan.

What would you like to own that you do not currently own?
A brain that can enable spacecraft to travel faster than the speed of light. It’s not a sci-fi right now.

What is your biggest extravagance?
It was also an investment: going to school in the US. It was my first time outside of Japan.

In what place are you happiest?
Next to my daughters, wherever it is. If it could be in space, it would be even better!

What ambitions do you still have?
To help unite our wisdoms and resources to protect our planet and restore it for future generations. That’s why I’m so excited to be on the Earthshot Prize Board, discovering and highlighting the best solutions in the world, developing skills for those solutions and accelerating actions.

What drives you?
Hope. I would like the earth to remain beautiful and shiny blue. When I saw the earth from space, I was amazed at its beauty – and its fragility.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
On board the Space Station, I operated a Canadian-developed robotic arm with an American colleague and installed an Italian-made logistics module. The crew also included Russians, who all installed various equipment together. International cooperation is the greatest achievement.

What do you find most annoying in other people?
Those who are pessimistic and deny possibilities.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
I’ve never been outside of Japan at the age of 20, so she would be surprised to see the world is much bigger than she thought.

What object did you lose that you wish you had?
A micro-gravity environment. Every time I have a sore neck or a sore shoulder, I miss micro gravity. And it’s so much fun!

What is the biggest challenge of our time?
To create more innovations to overcome Covid-19, climate change, environmental issues and so on – and to work together around the world. Our survival depends on this.

Do you believe in an afterlife?
I would not rule out that possibility, but I would like to focus on the present life.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far out of 10, what would you achieve?
Nine. I’m grateful.

Naoko Yamazaki contributed to “Earthshot: How to save our planet”, Published by John Murray

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