Naoko Yamazaki: ‘Seeing the Earth from space, I was astonished by its beauty — and its fragility’
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Naoko Yamazaki, 51, joined the National Space Development Agency of Japan (now JAXA) in 1996 and worked on various engineering projects before going into space on the Nasa Discovery shuttle in 2010. She is co-founder of the Space Port Japan Association.
What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
I dreamt of becoming a teacher. When I was a kid, there were no Japanese astronauts yet, so I didn’t think of becoming an astronaut.
Private school or state school? University or straight into work?
State schools and then the University of Tokyo. Ochanomizu high school was only for girls, there was no unconscious bias or gender perspectives, so it was very natural for me to major in engineering. I was interested in space as a child. When I was in junior high school, I witnessed the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. It was a very shocking accident. When I found out that Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, was on board, and that she had wanted to give a lecture from space, it connected my two favourite 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 quite fit. I try to be!
Ambition or talent: which 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 aware politically because our social systems depend on politics. When I started working, the law of gender equality was already established in Japan, but not enough to encourage women to keep working after marriage or having a child. It’s gradually improving, thanks to political activities. We need to regulate and to 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 don’t currently possess?
A brain that could enable spacecraft to travel faster than the speed of light. That’s only in sci-fi right now.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
It was also an investment: going to graduate school in the US. It was my first time outside Japan.
In what place are you happiest?
Next to my daughters, wherever it be. If it could be in space that would be even better!
What ambitions do you still have?
To help unite our wisdoms and resources to protect our planet and repair it for future generations. That’s why I’m so thrilled to be on the Earthshot Prize Council, which discovers and spotlights the best solutions in the world, develops skills for those solutions, and accelerates actions.
What drives you on?
Hope. I’d like the Earth to remain beautiful and shining blue. Seeing the Earth from space, I was astonished by its beauty — and its fragility.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
On board the Space Station, with an American colleague, I operated a Canadian-developed robotic arm and installed an Italian-made logistics module. The crew also included Russians, all installing various equipment together. International collaborations are the biggest achievements.
What do you find most irritating 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 had never been outside Japan at the age of 20, so she would be amazed to see the world is much bigger than she had thought.
Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
A microgravity environment. Every time I have a sore neck or a sore shoulder, I miss microgravity. And it’s so much fun!
What is the greatest challenge of our time?
To create more innovations to overcome Covid-19, climate change, environmental issues and so on — and to co-operate around the world. Our survival depends on this.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I would not eliminate that possibility, but I would like to focus on the current life.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
Nine. I am grateful.
Naoko Yamazaki has contributed to “Earthshot: How to Save Our Planet”, published by John Murray
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