UAE students learn from Japanese astronauts

In 2010, Naoko Yamazaki blasted off and returned to Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, making her the second woman and first mother from Japan to visit space.

Former Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki shares her experiences in space at the Zayed University convention centre in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Pawan Singh / The National
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ABU DHABI // Perseverance is the most important trait for anyone dreaming of space travel, according to a Japanese astronaut.

Speaking to students at Zayed University on Sunday, Naoko Yamazaki reflected on her 2010 journey when she blasted off aboard the space shuttle Discovery on trip that would make her the first mother and second woman from Japan to visit space.

“Looking up at the stars and constellations and watching films like Star Wars made me want to be an astronaut.”

In a visit arranged by the Japanese embassy to promote cooperation with the UAE’s space programme and to inspire the next generation of astronauts, the 45-year-old said growing up in Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan’s main islands, the clear night skies and science fiction films had inspired her from an early age.

Although she faced obstacles in reaching her goal, Ms Yamazaki said she was determined not to give up.

“We didn’t have our own manned mission at the time, and the first time I applied to become an astronaut I was rejected.”

She eventually gained entry into Japan’s space programme on her second attempt, but then the space shuttle Columbia disaster happened in 2003 stalling her ambitions.

“All space shuttle missions were grounded for four years. I was shocked but kept on training,” she said.

Her preparations included surviving three days in -20°C conditions in Russia and a 100-kilometre hike over 10 days in the Rocky Mountains.

Ms Yamazaki went into space when she was one of seven astronauts on Discovery tasked with resupplying the International Space Station.

She told the students how she had to strap herself in her sleeping bag when it was bedtime, and then waking up to find other astronauts sleeping on, from her perspective, the ceiling or walls.

Afra Al Mutairi, the president of Zayed University student council, said it was great to be able to meet an astronaut in person and inspiring to see her pictures from space.

“It shows you that people who are a big deal now had to start from the beginning and it motivates you to go after your dream,” said the 20-year-old.

Fellow student Afnan Alblooshi said the event was beneficial for both her fellow students and the country as a whole. “It’s great to see other countries that were successful in the field describe how accessible it is. You feel you can do it,” said the 19-year-old.

Another speaker, Dr Shinichi Nakasuka, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the University of Tokyo, said education in the space sector was an excellent tool for furthering the study of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

He pointed to a joint US-Japanese programme from the late 1990s where students would meet in Hawaii to cooperate on building satellites.

“I felt we had to change our way of thinking. Students in US universities [used] soldering techniques [that] were not that good and they worked in not-so clean rooms,” Dr Nakasuka said.

“When we started in 1999, we didn’t expect to be able to make satellites but we tried and succeeded.”

Building on the success of the CanSat initiative, in which students were asked to make a satellite the size of a soda can, the University of Tokyo launched one the first CubeSats in 2003.

Since then, Japanese universities have sent 34 satellites into orbit.

“We thought our first CubeSat would last only two to three months but it has lasted more than 12 years,” Dr Nakasuka said.

Participants in Japan Space Week, which involves three days of lectures and seminars, include the UAE Space Agency, Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.