Posts Tagged ‘the space station’

Koichi Wakata_edited-1Our neighbor, Koichi Wakata, has been in outer space four times. Yes, really, it’s true. While he is more than busy with his job he was able to take some time out to speak to me recently about space.

An Interview with Koichi Wakata

Me: How old were you when you first thought about outer space?

Koichi: I was five years old. I was watching the moon landing on television. At the time there was no space program in Japan so I didn’t really think I could be an astronaut. It was a dream. It did spark an interest in space and flying though.

Me: And your parents encouraged you?

Koichi: My parents bought me a toy airplane. I remember playing with it.

Me: Where did you go to school?

Koichi: I went to school, college, and grad school in Japan.

Me: You’re from Japan. What brought you to the U.S.?

Koichi: The space program. I work for JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. I report to them.

Me: What did you study in college? Did you plan to be an astronaut when you went to college?

Koichi: No, I wanted to be a structural engineer specifically an airplane structural engineer – making better, lighter, stronger airplanes. My bachelor’s is in aeronautical engineering, my master’s is in applied mechanics. Much later I got my PhD in Aerospace engineering.

Me: What about being an astronaut? Did you take classes? Courses? How did you go from an aeronautical engineer to an astronaut?

Koichi: I saw an article in the paper. JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration agency was looking for mission specialist candidates. I, and 400 others, applied.

Me: The paper! Wow, I should pay more attention! What kind of tests did you have to do to qualify?

Koichi: Everything: Math, science, history, language. There were medical exams, and other exams. I passed.

Me: But you were chosen out of the 400. I’m certain there were a lot of qualified people, so what made you stand out? (I bet your wife Stephanie, can answer this one.)

Stefanie: I can. I think he was chosen because he has such a positive outlook about life. He’s a positive, happy person. He pushes himself to excel. And he isn’t afraid of anything.

Koichi: And because I’m curious. I’ve always wanted to explore new things. I’m always asking questions. I want to see new things.

Me: So you don’t watch The Godfather over and over again like some guys? Ha. Just kidding. I bet Stefanie has it right, there are geniuses and then there are geniuses who love life and reflect a positive outlook. Those are not so common. So tell me, you’ve been in space four times? That’s amazing.

Koichi: The first time was 9 days on the shuttle: STS-72, the second time was 13 days on STS-92, the third time was the space station for 4 1/2 months, this last time I was up there 188 days.

Me: That is a long time to be in space. What was the food like?

Koichi: Not so good. They have us on a low salt diet. It’s not very tasty.

Me: What about that dried ice-cream that we can buy at the space center. I got that when I was a kid and was very impressed with how good it is.

Koichi: We don’t get any of that in space.

Me: No?

Koichi: Never.

Me: You mean the advertising? the commercials? I feel like I’ve been lied to.

Koichi: That’s tourist stuff. I did eat gummy bears.

Me: Gummy bears? I feel better already. Who, would you say, were your mentors in the space program when you first started out?

Koichi: Ken Cockrel is who first comes to mind. Then Brian Duffy, I flew 2 missions with him. When something would happen out there I would always ask myself what would Ken do? Or what would Brian do?

Me: This is all so good. Tell me about space experiments.

Koichi: There were a lot of them. Robotics, we would work with small robots to see how they could help in space. We had medical experiments, life science experiments, we experimented with liquid to see how it reacts in space.

Me: How does it react in space?

Koichi: It clings to surfaces. You’d think it would ball up and fly around but that’s only if you fling it, it stays on surfaces.

Me: that’s interesting. What kind of life sciences experiments and medical experiments?

Koichi: I volunteered as a guinea pig.

Me: Seriously?

Koichi: Yes, they did two tests with me. One was to test a bone density drug, the other was an experiment with my vision.

Me: They experimented on you?

Koichi: Yes, in space you lose bone density. On earth, your weight and the force of gravity pulls you and keeps your bones strong because the cells that replace bone are always at work. In space, those cells don’t work. So we must exercise using a vacuum cylinder to replicate weights. This helps to keep bones from losing too much density. The experiment this time was with a bone density drug. Not only did I not lose bone density but I gained a little. With the eyes, the back of the eye is affected in a weightless environment by becoming somewhat flatter. The effect is reversed back on earth but the vision in space is affected, things can get blurry. I was being monitored with that also.

Me: This all would be very interesting to anyone writing sci-fi. Oh, the things I could do with vision loss on a space ship. What other kinds of experiments did you do?

Koichi: We worked with a simi-conductor material. It is easier in space to create material that is lighter and thinner because of the weightlessness. There are a lot of materials being invented in space that would not be possible on earth.

Me: Oh my, the sci-fi writer inside me is humming. What is the most impressive thing you’ve seen?

Koichi: While the view of earth from outer space is very impressive, the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen happened when I was a thirteen year old.

Me: Really? What was it?

Koichi: I went to Boulder, CO. I visited the Great Rocky Mountains.

Me: Wow, the mountains do that to you, don’t they?

Koichi: That was a truly amazing experience. Being from Japan, and then visiting Boulder, all that space, the mountains, everything. Wow.

Me: Is there anything you’d like to leave us with? A parting word?

Koichi: Yes. When I am out there looking back at earth it is a truly humbling thing to see how small it is.

Me: Can you see pollution from outer space?

Koichi: At night, you can see the lights from the big cities.

Me: Light pollution.

Koichi: Yes.

Me: What about water pollution? Can you see the air pollution above cities? Like China?

Koichi: You can see the fires, the smoke from fires. And you can see the run-off at the mouth of rivers like the Mississippi river. But the Shanghai river is the worst of all. The earth really is tiny, and blue. It seems vulnerable. My feeling is that I’d like to protect it somehow. We all need to protect this spaceship earth.

Me: Yes, we do. What a great interview. Thank you so much, Koichi Wakata and Stefanie. You both are amazing. I feel so fortunate to live in the same neighborhood.


See Koichi Wakata’s information here: