Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
Preflight Interview: Satoshi Furukawa
A: Well, I had a longing for space from my childhood, and so I wanted to become an astronaut. Now, as a matter of fact, since I became 17 years old I wanted to study astronomy or something space engineering or something like that, but when I was 17 years old, I had a chance to listen to my uncle who is a medical doctor. He told me that he felt very happy when patients recovered and went home from the hospital. So I was impressed with that and at that point I wanted to become a medical doctor. So I studied hard and went to medical school and became a medical doctor. And the job as a medical doctor is very good, though it is very busy, but it is very good. One night I was working night shift at a hospital, I was watching a TV and I saw a TV news report saying that there would be an audition for new Japanese astronauts, those that are selected will perform many scientific experiments on board a space station and stay there for three to six months. I was galvanized and I thought, I would like to do this job. So I applied the audition and fortunately I was chosen.
You said that you were interested in astronomy as a young boy and into your teenage years. Do you remember what it was that, that interested you about that?
Well, when I was five years old I saw the first man’s landing on the moon on TV and I was impressed at it. That was one thing. And another thing was, I was a fan of a space hero called Ultra Seven, which was a Japanese TV program about 40 years ago. I was a big fan of that; that made me interested in space.
I want to learn more about, about your background, and I guess we’ll start with, tell me about your hometown and tell me what it was like growing up there for you.
OK. My hometown is Yokohama, which is right south of Tokyo and second biggest city in Japan. The population is 3.7 million and, in about 170 square miles, so very populated. The population density is about 80% of that of New York City. It’s a big city and it has an international port, and I like the city very much. It’s very exciting and people are curious about new things and people have challenging spirit.
Sounds like those kind of people and that environment helped make you the man that you are?
Yeah, exactly. The people in my hometown had a big influence on me.
You mentioned that you got interested in medicine because of an uncle who was a doctor. Tell me about the steps then in your education, and then in your professional career, from college, that led you to eventually become an astronaut.
OK. I went to a medical school in Tokyo. Then after graduating that, I practiced in gastroenterological surgery for five years, in a hospital in Tokyo or Ibaraki Prefecture, and then I focused on research in medical science for five years, and I performed many experiments in a laboratory in Tokyo University, then I wrote many scientific papers.
So you spent time not only practicing medicine with patients but also in medical research.
And now you’re getting ready to go continue that kind of research in a whole new laboratory. You’re moving on in your, in this career into an area that does have some risk to it, flying in space, so, Satoshi, what is it that you think that we human beings are getting as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth it for you to take that risk?
OK. I think there are three reasons for that. One, the widening the activity area to outer space is an instinct for human beings. Human beings like to know the unknowns like space, and human beings, would like to explore it. Second, let me use an analogy. About a hundred years ago, flying was a very dangerous thing; I think there was a discussion at that point saying that we don’t need to fly, the ground transportations are good enough. But, owing to the very challenging people, nowadays we can easily travel all around the world using airplanes. Same thing applies to space. And also the same analogy applies to the great navigation era about 500-600 years ago, or at the time when fish came out of water and live on the ground. And the third thing is by challenging new things or something difficult, people get more activated and, not only the people but the society itself becomes more activated, and that makes the people happier.
Satoshi, you’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expeditions 28 and 29 crews. Would you give me a summary of the goals of your six-month flight and tell me what your main responsibilities are going to be in space?
OK. Mainly I have two responsibilities. First, I’m working as a co-pilot for Soyuz, Russian spacecraft. It’s like a co-pilot for a commercial airliner. Soyuz is used during launch, rendezvous, docking, and also undocking from space station, then entry and landing. During this time frame, we as a crew work together, and we send nominal commands to Soyuz spacecraft as well as monitoring if the systems are working well, and in case of malfunctions we work together and deal with the case. And the second, during my five-and-a-half month stay on board the space station I will perform many scientific experiments, and I’m sure the results will benefit all the people all over the world.
Well, this is your first time after a number of years as an astronaut, your first time to fly. What was it like for you when you got the word that you had been assigned to your first spaceflight?
All right! Yeah, because, I have been training for 12 years and as an example, I used to be a member of a baseball club, and it’s like in prep for a game I have been practicing and training baseball, like swinging bats every day, something like that. So finally it’s my chance to go, so, all right!
Enough practice, time to get in the game?
That’s right. Exactly.
What is it that you are most looking forward to about this opportunity that you’re going to have now to be in space?
Well, first thing, is by conducting many scientific experiments on board the space station, dedicating the progress of science and making everybody’s life on Earth better than now. That’s my first interest, and other than that, I would like to look at the beautiful Earth from some of the windows on board the station, and plus, I would like to, take many photographs and share them with all.
For your country and for the Japanese space agency, what is it going to mean for you to follow the lead of Koichi Wakata and Soichi Noguchi as a full-time crew member on the space station?
Well, Koichi and Soichi are excellent crew members, and I learn from them and I would like to become as close as they are. Plus, I am a medical doctor and a scientist, so from that point of view I would like to contribute to the progress of science.
And I guess that it’s important for Japan and for the space agency in Japan to now have had three crew members on board the station, to have greater experience in space?
Yes, that’s great because Japan has been accumulating experience in human in space and I’m sure that would benefit in the future.
Well, let’s talk about this place that you’re going to go. Describe the International Space Station for me with all of the different modules and laboratories that it has up in space now.
OK. International Space Station is divided into two parts, U.S. operational systems, and Russian system, U.S. operational segment and Russian segments, let me talk about U.S. operational segments, called USOS. It has various kinds of laboratories, U.S. laboratories, Columbus European laboratories, and JEM [Japan Experiment Module], Kibo, Japanese laboratory. It also has a Joint Airlock, used for extra vehicular activity, also called spacewalk, and also it has many joint segments like Node 1, Node 2, Node 3, or PMAs [Pressurized Mating Adapter] in prep for docking for shuttle. And it also includes the Cupola which provides us beautiful views of the Earth because it’s full of glasses. And let me talk about Russian segment. Russian segment includes Service Module [Zvezda, which is a kind of living compartment; it includes ECLSS [environmental control and life support system] which is environmental control system, which provides us oxygen or air purification or water something else, something like that, and also the Russian segment has FGB [Zarya] which is a kind of a cargo vehicle, and the Russian segment also has airlock.
So there’s a lot of space station there for, for six people to work on.
And now there are six crew members on board the station these days and several laboratories, as you’ve described, and so there’s a lot more scientific research that’s being done, and a lot of it is directed at finding out how people can live in space and be productive in their work for longer periods of time. Tell me about that sort of research, the human life sciences research—what kind of experiments will you and your crewmates be involved with during this flight?
OK. We are conducting many scientific experiments, so let me introduce some of them. I will be performing experiments mainly in JEM, Japanese Experiment Module, and one of the experiments is a protein crystallization. Under microgravity, we can get better quality protein crystallization as compared to that on the ground, so using that, we will make good quality protein crystallization. For example, when cancer cells grow, tumor-feeding vessels are created around the tumor cells, cancer cells, and if you block or inhibit the creation of these vessels, it would be possible to cure the cancer. So a protein related to that is going to be made under grav, microgravity on board the space station, and I hope the results would help create new remedy against cancer. And another example is a plant experiment using cucumber. About 12 years ago astronaut Chiaki Mukai performed tens of scientific experiments on board the shuttle, on STS-95, and one of the experiments was an experiment for a scientist in Japan, plant scientist, and he found out that small node peg, let me talk about that. On the ground only one peg is made at the time of germination, but under microgravity two pegs were made at the time of sprouting, and also he found out that the side roots grow towards water. It was very interesting. So this time he focuses on proteins that are related to auxin transportation and distribution. Auxin is a plant hormone, and by doing that, what can, can we do? OK. Auxin is related to organ, generation as well as g load or gravity sensation, so by knowing how the auxin distribution is controlled we may be able to control the plant growth, or it may make way for the future plant factory in space. So I’m very excited.
Those are a couple of great examples of, of different kinds of science, and a lot of the other kinds of science that you’re going to do will have to do with you being the test subject…
…you and your crewmates. Tell me about some of those operations.
OK. That’s a good point. We are serving as guinea pigs, let me introduce some of them. In one experiment we are investigating our heart function in space. We are investigating that if the hearts decrease in the size of the heart muscle, or heart function from pumping and electrical point of view. And in that experiment we will be using the ultrasonographic device and I will be serving as an operator and a subject, because I used to work as a medical doctor and I used to perform ultrasonographic investigation on patients, mainly in the abdominal area, so it was easy for me to adapt to that in the heart area. That’s one example. Another example is a bone-related experiment, and let me talk about osteoporosis. It is a disease where bone density decreases and patients are prone to get fractured, and tens of millions of patients are affected on Earth. Under microgravity the bone density decreases very rapidly because the stimulus of gravity is missing, and surprisingly the speed of progress of bone density decrease is ten times of that on the ground for the patients of osteoporosis. So in order to prevent that astronauts exercise every day, one to two hours. In addition to that, we as guinea pigs take pills which are used for treatment to cure the osteoporosis on the ground, for preventive purposes. So, we are using our own bodies to prepare for future space era where everybody can easily go to space.
I imagine that for a medical doctor it must be particularly interesting to be involved in this kind of research on human bodies.
Exactly. Yeah, I am very interested in that.
Now, when you’re not working on all of these experiments, you and your crewmates are responsible for taking care of the station, too. Give me a sense of what other kinds of work, of maintenance and upkeep, that you have to do.
OK, that’s a good question. We need to do maintenance tasks. For example, checking emergency equipment like oxygen masks or portable fire extinguishers just in case, or we need to check medical devices for possible resuscitation. I hope that doesn’t happen, but just in case. Or we need to do some maintenance task like cleaning filters because on the ground dust drops on the ground and you can wipe it off or clean it by using a vacuum cleaner, but under microgravity dust floats around so, usually dust accumulates at the place of a filter, so we need to periodically clean the filter. Otherwise the air flow decreases, making CO2 spots and possibly creating crew member’s headache. That’s bad, so we need to prevent that.
So there’s a lot of different kinds of things…
…that you have to do.
Now one of the first big things that’s scheduled to happen is the arrival of the space shuttle on the last space shuttle mission, STS-135. Two of your station crewmates, Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, are going to be making a spacewalk during the shuttle visit. What are they going to do while they go outside during this shuttle visit?
OK. One of the main tasks is to retrieve failed pump module from the temporary space and stow in space shuttle [payload] bay and bring it back to Earth, and the main purpose is that by analyzing the root cause of the failure we can get lessons learned and go from there for future space program. And, the EVA includes other tasks, some, like retrieving new Goddard Space [Flight] Center payload from space shuttle payload bay and installing onto the space station, or remove and reinstall, remove and install, a new camera in place for malfunctioned one outside of the space station.
So they’ve got a lot of different kinds of things to do outside.
What is the rest of the docked mission of the shuttle about? What, what are you and the shuttle crewmates going to be doing during this time? And I don’t mean by just the EVA, I mean throughout the rest of the time that they’re there.
OK. In general, we ISS crew members help facilitate the shuttle crew members’ tasks from various points of view. For example, we will be helping load transfer from the shuttle to space station and from space station to shuttle, and also, we will be, OK, I am maneuvering space station robotics arm to grapple OBSS [Orbiter Boom Sensor System], which is robotics arm, to inspect shuttle Thermal Protection Systems during the docked time frame. And also I will be helping suit up the spacewalk suit for Ron Garan in prep for EVA, spacewalk.
And, go ahead…
And also, one of the main purposes of STS-135 is supplying many things including spare or maintenance devices for the space station, or consumables like water, food, oxygen, nitrogen.
A lot of, a lot of new supplies because, as you said, this is the last flight…
…of the space shuttle, on this mission of Atlantis. Satoshi, tell me what are your thoughts about the, the space shuttle’s place in the history of human spaceflight and its role in building the International Space Station?
Well, I think space shuttle played an important role in human spaceflight. Although, there might be a discussion that cost was more than originally thought to use space shuttle as a reusable vehicle, but, without the space shuttle’s contribution, we would not have been able to build space station. So right now space station weighs more than 400 tons, and it is due to space shuttle’s contribution, so it played a very important role in spaceflight.
And you’re going to be there to see the last flight of the space shuttle. You may also be there to see the first flight of some new cargo ships that are being developed by, with private industry through a NASA program, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. They have test flights that are, at this point, are scheduled for later in the year, during your time up there. Tell me about these vehicles and about what the crew will be doing to get the station ready for them and work to help them during their arrival.
OK. The commercial vehicle is called Dragon, made by SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies], private company. It is a very nice vehicle, nice cargo vehicle, so far, and we will be, OK, it will supply spare items or, for experiments or water or food or something like that, and in prep for arrival of Dragon space vehicle, as station crew members we will be configuring the space station to its arrival, like feathering solar arrays or configuring the space station mode to an appropriate one or something like that, and then, after that, we will be monitoring the arrival of a spacecraft, Dragon. There is a corridor where that needs to be kept; in other words, the Dragon needs to be inside of a specific corridor, otherwise there’s a possibility that vehicle lost control and possible collision to the space station. That is very dangerous, so we need to keep monitoring to make sure that the Dragon is inside of the approaching corridor. And, well, I hope it does not happen but in case Dragon goes out of the corridor, we need to send a command to some abort or some commands according to the timeline. And in addition to the monitoring we need to prepare for SS, space station robotics arm in prep for capturing. And, OK, the Dragon vehicle approaches from the nadir side or lower side, Earth side, of the space station and it approaches and relatively stops at about a 10 meter distance from the International Space Station. Then Mike, me and probably Dan [Burbank] will be working together, in maneuvering space station’s robotics arm to capture it and then we will be maneuvering it and attach it to probably nadir side of Node 2 segment.
This capturing of free flyer is the, the same procedure as is used with Japan’s HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], isn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. Yes, that’s very true. HTV had a great job this year and two years ago, and also a European cargo vehicle, ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], is doing a great job, and these are government vehicles, but I am impressed that the private company SpaceX is creating Dragon, and it is doing a very similar good job to the International Space Station. I’m very impressed.
Well, commercial cargo ships flying in space is just one way that spaceflight has changed dramatically since we’ve started with one man in a small capsule 50 years ago and now a giant space station with a half a dozen people flying. Satoshi, where do you think human spaceflight is going to go in the next 50 years or so, and how’s the International Space Station helping to get ready for that?
OK. This is just a personal opinion. I think there are two ways. One is human beings are continuing exploration to Mars or asteroids or something farther than that. The other is people can easily go to space: for example, traveling to space is one option for newlywed people; that would be great. And the contribution of space station: the research that, the result of the researches on board of space station will benefit for them. I mean, in other words, for example, it will contribute to the creation of space plant factory where, if you away from the Earth, for example, on asteroids far away from Earth, you need to be autonomous, so you need to create a very autonomous system including providing food.