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Preflight Interview: Aki Hoshide
06.04.12
 
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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

Why did you want to be an astronaut?

Well I lived in New Jersey when I was small and went to the Smithsonian, I went down to Kennedy Space Center, see the rockets, and also watched a lot of TV programs and movies, you know, related to science fiction. And that kind of fascinated me, the idea of going into space and going to different worlds. But at that time there were no Japanese astronauts; there were astronauts in the U.S., astro, cosmonauts in Russia, but no Japanese astronauts. When I was in high school, the first Japanese astronauts got selected, so after that I started thinking about, well, this could be a career.

And you’ve been thinking about ever since, was that your goal ever since then?

Yes, however, the selection wasn’t done regularly. It wasn’t like every two years, every year, so we didn’t know when the next selection would be. So like, I kind of thought about it, but just continued on with my education, got a mechanical engineering degree in university, but by that time the second selection was starting so I tried to apply but I didn’t have any working experience, so I wasn’t eligible to apply. So I started working for the Japanese space agency as an engineer and waited for the next chance.

Let me get you to go back to the earlier part of the story. You mentioned that you lived in New Jersey but you were born in Japan. Tell…

Yes.

…me about how you got from Japan to New Jersey and back.

Well, my father was a businessman and at that time he got transferred to New York, office in New York, and stayed there for four years, so he took me with him, you know, his family, to New Jersey, lived in New Jersey, worked in New York, so I had four years in New Jersey.

But Tokyo is your hometown?

Correct.

What’s Tokyo look like from orbit.

Big. Unfortunately, I was not able to see Tokyo itself during my last flight. The only time I saw Japan was when we were flying over, I think over Hokkaido, which is the northern big island in Japan, and then seeing down south. It’s very narrow, I could experience and recognize how small Japan was because you can see from orbit both the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean at the same time, and you can see the Japanese islands right there.

Tell me about growing up in Japan. What was that like for you?

So I lived there for three years before moving to New Jersey and then came back and continued in elementary school, and then moved to junior high school and high school and a school close to the space center in Tsukuba, which is probably something that helped me choose this career. But it’s a, I’ve been moving around, not just in Japan but overseas as well, so I had seen a lot of different areas, different cultures and different seasons.

You were living in many other places.

That’s right, yeah.

Where were you?

Singapore after high school and I study abroad for two years in Singapore. It was an international high school. It’s called a United World College, but it’s a high school and studied there for two years with, not just, you know, Japanese, you know, not just Singaporeans, but students from all over the world, Italian, American, Dutch, Malaysian, Indian; very multicultural school.

You said that when you were little you didn’t think about being an astronaut because there were no Japanese astronauts. What did you want to be?

Well, at that time, like, I just wanted to go to space but they didn’t know how to go to space and because there were no Japanese astronauts. There wasn’t a clear way to just go up to space, so it was a dream but I didn’t know how to make that dream come true.

You said you went to school then with the idea that, you know, we’ll just see; tell, take us through the steps of that, your education and your professional career that ultimately did lead you to becoming an astronaut.

I was interested in space and tech, I mean, science and technology from the start, so that helped me but without knowing how to be, how to go to space, how to become an astronaut later on, I just pursued my dream of, maybe not a dream but pursued how to become an engineer at that point, so just studied, you know, math, science and technology from that point. And then, later on, tried to apply for astronaut.

And you were able, you said, you were able to go to work for the space agency right out of college.

Yes.

What were you doing?

The first two years I was working on the H-II rocket, which was built by the Japanese space agency, and then after that, those two years, moved over to the astronaut office and actually supporting astronauts. And my first assignment actually was supporting Koichi Wakata for his very first flight, and so I had the opportunity to come here to Johnson Space Center and watch him do what he’s doing and learning from him for one year, and then see him take off and do a successful mission.

And you continued to work for NASDA and JAXA until your own selection?

Yes.

What other projects were you involved in?

We were at that time developing different payloads for the Japanese module, the Kibo, Japanese module, so we were trying to figure out, hey, how’s this human-machine interface—is this good, is this design not going to work on space station? So we had astronauts come over, take a look at the hardware, test it out. So I was involved in supporting that activity. At the same time we were developing our own training program for the Japanese module, and that was the very first for Japan, to develop a astronaut training, so we provided feedback from what we learned from Koichi’s mission and training here, and I was supporting that activity as well.

So now you’ll get an opportunity to test out your own work?

That’s correct.

As an astronaut, you’ve got a job that has some risks associated with it that most people don’t have to deal with in their lives, but it raises a question about why you do it. So, Aki, I want to ask you why: what is it that you think we are getting as a result of flying people in space that you think makes it worth taking the risk to do it?

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

I think it’s an investment for the future, for not just our generation but for the generation that comes. For them, I think, going up to space and then giving more opportunity, giving more possibilities, that’s what we’re trying to do, and that could be science, that could be technology, developing different cultures, new cultures in space, just giving opportunities and possibilities to, for the next generation. I think that, for me, that’s what we’re doing right now.

You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 32 and 33. Aki, tell me about the goals for this mission and what your jobs and responsibilities are going to be.

Well, first of all the duration of this mission, this increment, the two increments actually, is about four-and-a-half months. We’ll be launching from Kazakhstan on the Soyuz rocket and Soyuz spacecraft in mid-July, and then coming back in November. During that time frame we are going to be very, very busy. The main objective, obviously, is science, get a lot of different science done, but we’ll also have a lot of visiting vehicles come. First of all it’s the Japanese HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], and then we’ll probably have a Dragon and a Cygnus spacecraft coming, and then we would probably have an EVA. We are preparing for that right now. So it’s going to be a very busy time frame.

Now you’ve been to the station on your first spaceflight. Tell me what you’re looking forward to about this time, about going back there.

Well, my first flight was on a shuttle mission, STS-124, bringing up the Japanese laboratory and assembling it. That was about a two-week-long mission, very busy but very short, too, so by the time we had to close the hatch and say goodbye to station we were like, are we really going back home? It was just too short. So I’m looking forward to staying there for a longer period of time, and especially, we assembled the Japanese laboratory but that was it, we didn’t really operate or work inside that module, so I’m looking forward to going back to our home that we assembled and working there.

Let’s set the stage for the station that you’re going to now. Along with the new Japanese component, tell me about what is there now. What different modules and equipment are there for the crew members to use?

Well, the Japanese module, when we were up there, it was just the laboratory and the stowage module, but now we have the external platform which has all the external payloads on, and then when we were up there we didn’t have Node 3 and the Cupola, so it’s nice to have that big window to see Earth, and also a lot more capability for science.

There’s also American laboratories, European laboratories, Russian, new Russian components, too, right?

Yes, it’s bigger. It’s much bigger and much more capable of doing different science and experiments.

You mentioned a minute ago that your trip is going to be about four-and-a-half months long. It was actually shortened by a few weeks because of an issue preparing another crew’s Soyuz spacecraft. Has the change in the duration affected your training, and it is, do you think, going to effect how, the work that you do when you get there and get started?

It did, you know, make the training a little longer, meaning we had more time to prepare and we had some time to relax as well, but we all know as astronauts and cosmonauts that we have to wait until the rocket launches, so that’s part of our job, I think, to wait.

Is that the hardest part of your job…

Not really.

…waiting to go?

Well, we all know and we all prepare well, and people do, like the instructors, will prepare us very well, so we didn’t have any concerns or problems whatsoever.

Now one of the changes is going to be the fact that only a week or so after you arrive is when the, Japan’s next H-II Transfer Vehicle will be arriving. Does the scheduling for that affect your time to get oriented on the station and to get ready for HTV’s arrival?

Actually, yes. They, you have to have a number of crew members in order to capture the HTV when it arrives, so they couldn’t do it when Joe Acaba is there alone on the U.S. side, so the HTV had to wait for us to arrive, and then launch the HTV and have us prepare for arrival. Now during that time frame we have to adjust to the environment and also get ready and do enough training on board as well, because there are subtle differences between the training on the ground and the actual equipment on orbit, so just to get ourselves situated it takes a little bit of time, but, we’ll be ready when HTV actually arrives at the station.

And it turns out you’re going to be the first Japanese astronaut to be on the station when an HTV arrives. Tell me about the importance about that for Japan and for the Japanese space program.

Well, this is, this will be the third HTV that will be launching to the station. The first two were very successful, and actually I worked as a capcom and a, helping out on the robotics side during HTV 1, the very first visiting vehicle that just comes up and stops 10 meters below station and waits for the robotic arm to grapple it. So it’s a very, as I say, very personal visiting vehicle for me, and I look forward to being there when HTV 3 arrives. Now for Japan, obviously, it’s a Japan-built vehicle launching on a Japanese rocket and, I guess, having a Japanese crew member being up there to work on it actually will be of very significant importance.

Now I understand that the plan is that you’re going to be assisting Joe Acaba for the grapple and the berthing of, this HTV. Describe that process and how the, how you crew members get that HTV attached to the station.

Well, so we’ll be working from the Cupola and Joe will be working on the robotic arm and I’ll be assisting him as a robotic operator, but at the same time be the prime crewmember working on the HTV itself. So we’ll be monitoring and basically the ground will be commanding necessary things on the visiting vehicle itself, but we’ll be monitoring so if something happens, something’s wrong, then we can jump on the buttons and command it to retreat or move away from the station. So safety-wise it’s important for the crew members to monitor what’s going on with the visiting vehicle. When it gets closer, the visiting vehicle will just stop, and Joe will be ready to capture with the robotic arm. Once it gets close enough, then the arm will move in, grapple it, and then after it’s grappled, then we’ll berth it to Node 2.

That’s just, swing it around and plug it in?

Yeah.

And then the fun begins when you get to open it from the inside, right?

Correct.

When its mission is done, is the removal of HTV the same process just in reverse?

It’s pretty similar. Maybe, hopefully less intense, because grabbing a moving target is a lot harder than releasing it and just letting it go, so it will be a less intense operation but nevertheless you’re letting go a big vehicle which would be free-flying and then moving away from station. You don’t want something bad happening and then coming back to the station and colliding so again the crew member will be monitoring the visiting vehicle and making sure that it’s moving away like it should be.

You just said something about having to reach out and grab “a moving target.” When we watch it on TV, it looks like it’s not moving. It’s moving at the same speed as the station.

Right.

I guess from your perspective though it is or could be moving, right?

It could be moving, and that’s, a lot of our training for visiting vehicle grapple is based on how much it’s moving and then making sure that we can capture it, so in real life, we saw HTV 1 and 2 just sitting there, and we’d like to see that, too, for HTV 3 and other vehicles as well, but in reality, technically it could be moving just slightly, just drifting, so we’re ready, we’re trained to grapple it, even if it’s moving very slightly.

This HTV is carrying some unpressurized cargo on its exterior. Talk us through the robotics work that’s required in order to get that pallet of hardware delivered to the Japanese platform.

Once the HTV itself is berthed to Node 2, the arm will move and grapple the external pallet, which is actually inside—it’s like a sliding pallet inside the visiting vehicle and the payloads are mounted on those exposed pallets.

And it’s got a slot that it slides into…

Slides into…

…it’s outside in the sense that it’s unpressurized but it’s within the, it’s not sticking out on the outside.

That’s correct. So it’s inside the vehicle but it’s in an unpressurized section, and it slides out by the arm. The arm will grapple the exposed pallet, slide it out and then maneuver it and then it’s going to hand over to, the exposed pallet, to the Japanese robotic arm, and then that pallet will be attached to the Japanese external platform. So it’s a lot of robotics involved and then once it’s attached to the external platform of the Japanese module, then it will be moving the payloads to wherever it needs to go. So it’s a lot of robotics. I think a new thing for this HTV, exposed pallet robotics, is some part, maybe half or a little bit more than half of it, will be controlled from the ground, not the crew, so that would give us a little more time to work on science.

The fact is that you guys have a lot of visiting vehicles coming to the station during the beginning part of your increment up there. Is that, like, new and exciting work that you look forward or is it, oh, here comes another visiting vehicle again?

It will be exciting because, especially for the commercial vehicles it’s going to be, I think, a new era for the space program. But we have been having, you know, Progress, HTV, ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], but having commercial new vehicles coming up, that will be an exciting era.

There’s also a Russian spacewalk on the plan for the early part of your mission. You’re not going outside here but fill us in on some details. What is this spacewalk about?

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

It’s, the details of this spacewalk itself, I’m not really familiar with it but there’s a task that I need to do during that spacewalk and it’s for the preparation for them to go outside. I’ll be working some of the Russian hatches and valves and communicating with them, making sure that they can go out and then safely come back inside as well. If we have a leak in their airlock then we’ll open up a different hatch, making sure that they can come in, and then close that hatch, so that we can safely pressurize and get them out of the suit.

You have been preparing for a spacewalk, albeit a, one out of the U.S. section of the space station. Tell me about who’s going out and what you’re going to do, starting with whether or not they, you’ve decided you’re going to do it at all.

That’s a very good question. We have a lot of things on our plate so it depends on whether we have enough time to go out or not, but currently we are preparing and Suni Williams and I will be going out the door and Joe Acaba will probably be inside helping us out, suiting up and working the robotic arm. The main task for us during that EVA is changing out the Main Bus Switching Unit, which is, hasn’t failed but has some problems so it’s good to swap through that, swap it out with a new one. And then another one is lying down, laying down some cables for the new Russian module that’s coming up sometime next year.

And those are cables from the U.S. section of the station over to the Russians…

Yes.

…to provide power or…

Provide power and some communication as well.

This would be your first spacewalk ever, right?

Yes.

Have you gotten any advice from your colleagues about what it’s like to do that?

A lot of advices from, you know, previously-flown crew member who’s done spacewalks. Obviously Suni’s done it, Joe Acaba’s done it, and there’s a lot of people that have been giving me advice, and at the same time the instructors on the ground, very knowledgeable, and they’ve been giving me some information about, hey, people have done it this way in the past, you know, and just getting those information and working on that.

You look like you would, are excited about the prospect of doing it.

Very much.

Now with six crewmembers on the space station and several more laboratories that have been added over time, so there’s a much greater capacity for research, and you said a moment ago that that’s one of the biggest focuses. And inside science, trying to figure out how human beings respond to being in that environment is one of the areas of focus. Give me a couple of examples of the different kinds of human life sciences research that you and your crewmates are going to be involved with on your mission.

One experiment that we’re doing involves muscles, which is, means exercise. Right now we’re exercising every single day, two hours a day, on station, and that’s to help us recover once we’re on the ground, to quickly recover from the effects of microgravity. In the past, if we didn’t exercise at all, coming back we couldn’t even stand. Now we have a great equipment on board that helps us maintain and even get stronger, but it takes time to exercise two hours every single day. We’re trying to see if a new protocol will work better, be more efficient, less time-consuming, so we’re going to try that out and see if the, that helps in any way. Other experiment, there’s a very, a big range of experiments on human, that we will do. One interesting way of doing it, in the past we’ve been drawing blood, collecting urine samples and then from those getting some data. We’re going to just get some hair samples and then get, try to see if that would be enough to collect some information.

Well, that’s interesting, to be able to see whether or not you can make things a little more efficient by examining just something that probably doesn’t have to be stored in cold storage either.

Right, um hmm.

There are lots of other kinds of research that station crew members are involved with, too. Give me some examples of the other science where you’re not going to be the subject of the research but you’re going to be the assistants, the lab assistants, for the scientists on the ground.

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, Expedition 32/33 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

Well, there’s two unique experiments that we’ll be doing during our mission and these two are Japanese experiments. But one is using a very small fish called a medaka, and actually it’s been in space before on a space shuttle mission. Again, it’s a very short duration, two weeks, a little more than two weeks it’s been on, in space, came back and the researchers did some research on it. The importance of these very small fishes are they have bones and muscles just like human beings, so what we’re trying to do is have them stay in space for longer duration and then bring them down and then take at a look at their bone structures and muscles and see the effects of microgravity. In the future, we’ll be looking at those data and then maybe help human’s bone and muscle duration, I guess.

You said there were a couple of unique ones.

Yes.

That’s one.

This was one. The other one is a Cubesat deploy. This also will go up on HTV 3 and then we’ll assemble the unit that would deploy the Cubesat, which is about this size, maybe three inches by three inches by three inches, three or four inches, so it’s a very small satellite, actually, that will be brought up on HTV 3, and then through the Japanese airlock we’ll bring it outside, and then using the Japanese robotic arm kind of move it so it points to the aft nadir direction, and then by the help of a spring force it just shoots out and deploys. The importance of this is, in the past we’ve been launching these small satellites on a rocket, on a big rocket, where you have a big satellite, you have a little more capability of launching, so we added those piggybacked satellites on those rockets. Now, if you launch it on a big rocket just like an ordinary satellite, there’s a lot of vibration, shock, acoustic energy that you need to think about. You have to design that satellite so that it can tolerate those environment. Now the beauty of launching it on HTV is you can just pack it, and then the crew member on board will just open it up and make sure it’s not damaged, and if it is, maybe in the future, we can fix it before deploying it. So it provides a lot of more capability and new infrastructure, I think.

In a general sense, I’m wondering if you’re looking forward to the different kinds of science work you’re going to get to do inside Kibo.

Yes.

On the International Space Station, crew members have a lot of science work to do but they have other work to do, too. Give me a sense of what that other work is. What do station crew members do with their time when they’re not doing science?

It’s a lot of things, but especially since there’s only six of us on board, we have to manage ourselves, manage our everyday life, which is pretty much the same at home, I think. We have to cook for ourselves, we have to clean the house, that’s very important, and if something fails then we have to fix it. There’s no one that we can call and have them come over and fix it for us, so we’ll be working with the ground team and they’ll have a procedure ready and we’ll start working on fixing things.

So, you know, cooking and cleaning and keeping the ship running…

Yes.

…is all of what you got to do.

Um huh.

You are going to be in space with an international crew at the same time that the Olympic Games are going to be taking place in London this summer.

That is true.

Is there an analogy there between those two international kind of events?

I guess. We’re in a way a rival, but at the same time, you know, working towards a common goal, which is, you know, a successful science laboratory. So we cooperate with each other and it’s a big international project. So in that sense I guess it has some analogy to it.

You going to have any international competitions on board?

We’re thinking about it.

The International Space Station these days is getting its supplies on uncrewed ships that are launched from Japan and Russia and, by the Europeans launched from South America. There are two new cargo ships that are being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that should be flying during your mission. Tell me about these two vehicles and how they mix in with the others.

Well, the two vehicles—the Dragon, built by SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation], and Cygnus, built by Orbital [Sciences Corporation]—these two are going to be the next generation spacecraft to help us deliver cargoes to the space station. We have the HTV, the Japanese mo, the Japanese transfer vehicle that’s already going up; it has gone up twice and the third one will be going up. It’s similar in a sense that it comes up and stops 10 meters below the station and then gets grappled by the robotic arm. But there are little differences, what sensors they use where the grapple fixture is located with respect to the vehicle, so the robotic arm configuration’s going to be slightly different, but it’s very subtle and it, pretty much the operation will be similar to what we’ve been doing on HTV.

How do Dragon and Cygnus differ from one another and how are they like one another?

The shape is different, the thrusters are different, the grapple fixture location is different and how to pack the cargoes inside will be different, so they’re trying to figure out themselves how efficient they can be and how they can help out the space station as well. So it’ll be interesting to see the uniqueness of each individual visiting vehicle.

You know, the addition of these commercial cargo ships is a sign that human space exploration is moving beyond just the province of governments.

Uh huh.

Where do you think human exploration is going to be in 20 or 50 years, and how is the International Space Station program getting us ready for that?

I think, and this is also my personal hope as well, but I think, you know, commercial sector should come up to low Earth orbit, and this is a first step to that. And then once everyone can go up to low Earth orbit and do whatever they want to do, whether it’s experiment or just experiencing space environment or just staying there as a tourist, there is other capability or possibilities, but people should go up to space, and then, by that time, I think the government entities, not just NASA, not just the Japanese space agency but all the agencies around the world, should aim higher and further, so that might be the moon, Mars, asteroids, we don’t know, but that’s where the government entities should aim for.

And how is the work that you’re doing on this space station now getting us ready for that future?

I think it’s an infrastructure that we can test things. So first step would be the commercial visiting vehicles; maybe next step a new module built by commercial companies, any experiments, new ways of testing things; I think there’s a big possibility to help out the commercial sector.