Space and I

Chiaki Mukai, Global Education Magazine

I was born in 1952 in a small town near Tokyo. Many people have asked me if I had a dream to be an astronaut since my childhood. No, never. Ever since I could remember, I never had a dream to fly into space—actually, until I became 32 years old. It was in 1957 that the Russian Sputnik circled the earth. I was only five years old then. At that time almost no Japanese person was even aware of the space program, even less the manned efforts to explore that frontier. More than that, it was incredible to even imagine that 37 years later, the first Japanese woman would soar into space. Throughout my childhood, there were so many epoch-making events within the space program. For example: In 1961, when I was 9 years old, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth and became the first human being to travel into space and return, to report about our “blue planet”. In 1963, when I was 11 years old, Russian Valentia Tereshkova became the first woman in space. On July 20, 1969, when I was 17 years old, the American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to ever walk on the moon. Every time, as I heard or read of these events, I was so excited. It inspired me to search out and read any biographies of these history-makers. During those early years, that was the extent of my interest with regard to any personal aspirations in space. I felt that those marvelous things were beyond any personal reach—occurring in what appeared to be worlds away.

My dream when I was a child was to be a medical doctor so that I could help people suffering from diseases. My younger brother had difficulty walking without physical assistance. He suffered from aseptic necrosis, a rare disease which caused his leg bones to become very brittle. I could only watch as other children teased him because he was crippled–it made our hearts heavy with sadness. My parents eventually took my brother to a big university hospital in Tokyo, where my brother received the medical care he needed. His condition improved greatly. These experiences deeply affected my decision and determination, to work even harder toward becoming a doctor. Even at age 10, I was committed to this personal endeavor, as I wrote a composition assignment entitled, “What Will I Be in the Future”. As I approached fourteen years of age,

I left my parents’ home and moved to Tokyo to pursue a higher level of education that would better prepare me to enter a medical school. After years of education and formal training, I was fortunate enough to achieve my first dream—to be a doctor. I chose to specialize in cardiovascular surgery.

In each of our lives, nobody knows what will happen–nor be able to predict the circumstances or events of what may or may not occur in our futures. In any case, I make a conscious effort to never forget how very fortunate I truly am. On a wonderful morning in December of 1983–I sat read- ing the newspaper and relaxing with a cup of coffee in my medical office after night duty in the intensive care unit. A very interesting article suddenly caught my eyes! The article said that the Japanese Space Agency was inviting Japanese candidates for a chance to conduct space experiments aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle in 1988. I was so surprised by the article and shouted “Gee, can a Japanese have an opportunity to go into space? You’ve got to be kidding!” I thought stereotypically—that space travelers had to be either American or Russian because I was yet unaware that the U.S. had already sent an international astronaut from Germany into space in 1983. “Times have really changed,” I thought to myself. Even more surprising and wonderful was that the article seemed to be seeking out candidates with scientific-educational backgrounds capable of conducting various experiments in a limited time while in space—hopefully scientists. My stereotyped mind again asked “Shouldn’t astronauts be pilots or aviators?” I felt struck by a great emotional sensation— realizing that the progress of science and technology in the twentieth century had indeed developed an advanced space program. Yes, so progressive that it enables ordinary people working on earth to travel beyond this planet and expand their professions and activities in space as well as on the earth. What a wonderful era to be living in! In the 1980’s, thanks to the development of the Space Shuttle, our access to space became easier. We are now living in an era of utilizing our space environment and realizing its value as a precious resource. As I was being impressed by the progress of the space program, I grew more and more intrigued about personally seeing the blue planet from outer space. I wondered if such a magnificent experience would truly expand my concept of life itself and deepen my way of thinking. At the same time, I was greatly fascinated by the space environment such as weightlessness for research pur- poses. I saw it as an opportunity to contribute my medical expertise to the space program.

People often ask me: “Did you think that, as a woman, you had any realistic chance of being selected?” I guess, the fact that I was a woman never even occurred to me as a possible limitation or advantage. No matter what the gender, color, religion, etc. I saw myself only as one human candidate among hundreds of applicants. As far as a profession or any personal endeavor I may have—my approach to the whole issue was always the and fuel leakage problems in 1991, delayed the SL-J mission into 1992, after being originally scheduled for an early 1988 lift off.

For the SL-J mission, we three Japanese candidates trained so hard to get a flight position. Each of us hoped that we would be chosen for the flight. Only one of us would be selected to fly on this mission. As it turned out, I was destined to be a back up crew member for the mission. Of course, I was disappointed by the outcome for a while. “It can’t be helped.” “My time has not come yet.” “Let’s work hard as a back up.” I thought to myself. As far as training was concerned, a back up crew member was in an advantageous same: “If I like it, and want to do it—and I believe I can do it well, I will surpass any obstacles and challenges and go for it!” And so—with everything within me, I picked up my pen and applied for a dream—that someday, I might go into space.

In 1985, I was lucky enough to be selected by the Japanese Space Agency as one of three candidates among 533 applicants targeted for a 1988 Shuttle Flight called the SL-J mission. It was a shared mission effort between the U.S. and Japan using Spacelab. By then, I was 34 years old. My second dream, which was to travel into and work in outer space, had begun. Four months after beginning my basic training in Japan, one of the most difficult things during my astronaut career happened. That was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Even now, I can clearly recall the very moment I learned of the tragedy. It was in the midnight hours in faraway Tokyo. Every part of my being felt shaken. “Should I leave the space program?” I repeatedly questioned myself if I should return to the medical field. At that time, nobody seemed certain of what actually caused the accident nor when the Space Shuttle program would start up again. After a few days of consideration and soul searching, I decided to remain in the space program. I felt committed to pursuing my dream—I did not want to quit. The Challenger explosion in 1986, and fuel leakage problems in 1991, delayed the SL-J mission into 1992, after being originally scheduled for an early 1988 lift off.

For the SL-J mission, we three Japanese candidates trained so hard to get a flight position. Each of us hoped that we would be chosen for the flight. Only one of us would be selected to fly on this mission. As it turned out, I was destined to be a back up crew member for the mission. Of course, I was disappointed by the outcome for a while. “It can’t be helped.” “My time has not come yet.” “Let’s work hard as a back up.” I thought to myself. As far as training was concerned, a back up crew member was in an advantageous position to understand the mission as a whole. It required both flight crew training and the specific training for back ups, such as working as a member of a ground operational team in the Payload Control Center. Through this valuable experience, I witnessed how many people worked together to make the mission successful, although astronauts were the only visible part to the public. I feel this experience greatly enhanced my opportunity toward a flight assignment. In 1992, after completing my responsibilities as a back up crew member for the SL-J mission, I was fortunately selected as a prime crew member out of a pool of twenty-two international applicants. Finally my dream to fly into space came true. I first flew in space in 1994, followed by my second flight in 1998.

On a personal note, I am grateful to have had opportunities to journey into space. It took nearly ten years to see my dream come true. It was indeed worth the effort and the wait. During these years, I met so many wonderful people who inspired me. This experience will forever remain my lifetime treasure. No longer in space and now an “earthling” once again, I feel that my good fortune yet continues. I welcome the opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to many people who have encouraged me to believe that “If you can dream it, you can do it. “And I strongly believe that “Education enables us to envision and to pursue our dreams.

Chiaki Mukai

 

This article was published on October 17th: International Day for the Eradication of Poverty in Global Education Magazine

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