Making the big leap happen

In Photo: Wakata learns how to dance the tinikling

TO dream to become an astronaut is one thing, to be there finally in space looking back on Earth is surreal.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata have always longed to fly and work in space ever since he saw that one big moment in history when he was 5 years old, when mankind finally made that big leap—landing on the Moon.

Koichi Wakata
Koichi Wakata

During the 23rd Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum that was held in Manila last month, Wakata led various sessions and meetings related to space and space explorations. Between his busy schedule of talks and meetings, the BusinessMirror had a chance to interview him about his childhood dream, making it happen, his experience in space and his message to the next generation who also want to take that big leap.

Wakata is a Japanese engineer by profession. After he was selected to be an astronaut in 1992 for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) and trained at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) Johnson Space Center, he first flew to space in 1996.

He had had a total of four Nasa Space Shuttle missions, a Russian Soyuz mission and a long-duration stay at the International Space Station (ISS).

According to Jaxa, he became the first Japanese ISS commander for Expedition 39 and has accumulated 347 days, eight hours and 33 minutes in space spanning four missions—a record he held as the longest stay in space for the Japanese human space-flight history.

Below are excerpts of the BusinessMirror’s interview with Astronaut Wakata:

Why did you want to be an astronaut or did you dream to be an astronaut?

I have always longed to fly and work in space when I saw the Apollo Lunar landing when I was 5 years old. I think it’s fascinating to go to a different world like on the surface of the moon. But I always thought it was impossible as a Japanese because [during that time] there was no Japanese astronaut. But I guess, without having my people and country involved in this business [space and space exploration], probably I won’t get to be able to get there [in space].

When you were selected to be an astronaut, how did it feel?

It was unbelievable! I applied when I saw the astronaut selection on a newspaper back in 1991. I thought it was probably impossible for me to be selected. Still, I applied and after going through five different selections, academic tasks, interviews, medical tests and psychological tests, I was selected from 400 candidates. I couldn’t believe it.

I think I was just lucky because there were so many talented engineers and medical doctors who applied at the same time. But I have always been grateful. I am very thankful Japan provided an opportunity for me and I hope more countries will be able to provide those opportunities to their very dedicated people in this field.

What was the hardest challenge when you were training to be an astronaut?

Well, technically, that[physical, emotional and mental training] was something I expected. But the most difficult for me was learning and communicating in English. I never lived outside Japan before I was sent to Houston for training. In the simulator of the space shuttle launches [one of his trainings], there were four astronauts inside the cockpit and you have to understand 100 percent of what’s going on. If you lose track, which one is that and which engine is this, which computer is down, you will lose the situational awareness. I failed, I crashed many times because of that.

No matter how much you study very thick manuals, if you don’t understand the conversation, you’ll lose it. That’s why I recorded all the communications in the simulators and repeatedly listened to that in the car. I did that for one year and I was able to catch up on what they were saying.

It’s always tough in the beginning. The language was tough but I made it. And since I had that experience in overcoming the difficulty in the English language, I did the same thing with the Russian language [during his Russian Soyuz mission training]. That was hard, but I learned a lot, I gained a lot of friends.

How was it living in space?

Living in space is pretty exciting. It is very easy to transport from one place to another because you can push your body. It’s very easy. The view of the Earth is outstanding. Of course, sometimes, it is very inconvenient because if you lose something like your pen, it will float and disappear very quickly. You have to control everything that you carry so it doesn’t get lost. But, it’s very comfortable. You’ll enjoy it. I always miss it.

What can you say to those who want to be an astronaut?

Well I would say, it doesn’t have to be an astronaut-related business or you should be in astronomy or engineering. Every kid, every adult, everybody is different and that’s okay. Everybody has his or her own merit or something that nobody else can do better. So I always tell the kids to find what kind of person you are and what are you interested in. Find yourself and then make a clear goal after analyzing who you are. After setting the goal, work toward it. Even if you fail, don’t give up. Then someday, your dream will come true.

For kids who want to be an astronaut?

For kids, it’s the same thing. If you want to be an astronaut, think what you want to do in space because an astronaut’s work involves really a lot of work. It’s important to determine what you really want to do in space. And if you finally have figure out what you want to do in space, then you’ll know what you need to study to become an astronaut. After that, the path will be open for you to go to space.

Image Credits: Stephanie Tumampos

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Stephanie Tumampos has a Bachelor's degree in Applied Physics obtained at the University of the Philippines Los Baños and a master's degree in Environmental Engineering obtained from the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is currently a correspondent and a photojournalist for more than 3 years in BusinessMirror and writes under the Science, Biodiversity and Faith pages.

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