Preflight Interview: Naoko Yamazaki, Mission Specialist
JSC2010-E-006717 -- STS-131 Mission Specialist Naoko Yamazaki

STS-131 Mission Specialist Naoko Yamazaki participates in an undocking timeline training session in the Mission Simulation Development Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-131 interview with Mission Specialist Naoko Yamazaki. Tell us about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there.

I was born in Matsudo City in Japan. Matsudo City is a small town, but because it is a suburb of Tokyo I had both of the best worlds, a small town in which I could enjoy nature, especially the Edo River and also I could access Tokyo, a big city and its advantages. I also spent two years in Sapporo in Hokkaido in the northern area of Japan and I enjoyed skiing a lot in Sapporo.

Wow! Okay, so did you become a pretty good skier? Do you still ski?

Oh, yes, sometimes I do.

How does skiing make you feel, basically? You’re out there by yourself and nature and…

Right, exactly. When I am skiing I feel the wide nature so I see lots of mountains, lots of snow and I feel very comfortable in the big nature so I like skiing.

Tell me about some of your other interests growing up. What else did you like to do?

In Sapporo it had a beautiful night sky so I liked to watch the stars and had much interest in space. Matsudo City had a planetarium so I could learn about the stars and the constellation for just thirty cents each visit. I went there very often with my older brother and it widened up my interest in space as well.

That sounds like a bargain, thirty cents each visit.


That’s great. Tell us how you would characterize the value of education in your life.

Education has played a major role in my life. From the beginning of my education I liked studying, especially math and science and each level I could add to my knowledge and I think it widened up my career.

Can you tell us about your educational background starting from high school graduation, post high school?

I majored in aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo receiving both Bachelor and Master’s Degrees there. I studied especially space transportation systems and space robotics. Also I had an opportunity to study for one year at the University of Maryland and there was a huge water tank which was thirty feet in depth so we put row boats in the water tank and we could simulate microgravity. So it was a very interesting experience to me.

Do you recall when it was that you first got the notion that you wanted to be an astronaut?

Yes. When I was a child, I liked to watch science fiction movies like “Star Wars” and I believed we could go to space when we grew up. At age fifteen I watched TV and I watched space shuttle launch and realized, “Oh, there was a real space rocket in the world. It was not science fiction, but it was a real world.” So I was thinking about a possibility to become an astronaut.

Dr. Chiaki Mukai was Japan’s only female astronaut before you.


What was it, considering I guess those odds, what gave you the confidence to pursue a career as an astronaut?

Well when I wanted to become an astronaut I didn’t think about the fact that there were not so many women astronauts. I was focused on being an astronaut, not being a woman astronaut.

In 1996 you began working for Japan’s Space Agency. It’s called JAXA but back then it was called NASDA. Tell us about the jobs that you held when you first started and from there walk us through how you eventually made it to the Astronaut Corps.

In 1996 I started working in NASDA which is now JAXA as an engineer and I helped work on the development of Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module, which is now attached onto the International Space Station. So it enhanced my desire to become an astronaut and to go work on the International Space Station, especially on Kibo. In 1998 I applied for the Japanese Astronaut Corps. This was my second try and Japanese Space Agency has a similar selection process like in NASA’s. We had comprehensive examinations, medical examinations and physical check and several interviews. The whole process took almost one year so when I was selected I was so excited and felt very thankful to many people for supporting me.

Continue the story from there then. Tell us what you’ve done since becoming an astronaut and how you eventually came here to Johnson Space Center.

In 1999 I started my basic training. The basic training was held in many countries, in Japan, in Canada and United States, in Russia and in European countries because these countries are the major partners in International Space Station program. After I finished my basic training I went to Russia for seven months in the Star City to get qualified as a Flight Engineer of the Russian spacecraft Soyuz. Then after that I came to Houston to join the NASA mission space training program.

Done a lot of traveling even before your first spaceflight.

Yes, exactly.

STS-131 is your first spaceflight. Tell us the story of where you were, what you were doing when you found out you’d been selected to make this flight.

I was visiting Japan for training when I received a message from Astronaut Office Chief, at that time, Steve Lindsey. So when I read his message I got so excited and felt very thankful to my families and to all the people who have supported me.

What are you most looking forward to on this mission? What are you looking forward to seeing or experiencing the most?

I’m looking forward to working with my crew members to fulfill the mission objectives, and I’m also looking forward to watching the Earth from space. I believe I will enjoy the microgravity feeling as well.

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STS-131 Mission Specialist Naoko Yamazaki participates in a training session in the shuttle mission simulator in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This mission will commemorate a milestone for JAXA. It’ll mark the first time that two Japanese astronauts, yourself and Soichi Noguchi, have been in space together. How special will that be for you and for Japan?

Yes, this is a very big step for Japan. Of course, for American astronaut, it is usual. However, for the Japanese astronaut, it is a first time to get together in space and Soichi and I are scheduled to do several tasks together like experimental rack transfer and installation on the space station so we are looking forward to working with each other and we are also looking forward to sharing some Japanese cultures among the crew members.

Give us your thoughts if you would about the progress that Japan has made in space exploration from its early years to now having a significant presence on the International Space Station.

Thank you. Japan has come a long way from a pencil rocket, a very small, tiny rocket, to the H2 rocket which recently delivered H2 transfer vehicle to the International Space Station successfully. Also Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module, is now attached to the space station and in Kibo there are lots of science experiments conducted. Many Japanese astronauts have an opportunity to work on the International Space Station so it seems to me Japan has come a long way.

Tell us what it’s been like training with the STS-131 crew for this mission.

It has been lots of fun. I’ve been learning a lot from the team, especially from experienced astronauts. It’s also lots of fun to work with instructors, the flight controllers and the people who coordinate our training.

You mentioned some of the people that work behind the scenes, the trainers, but there are thousands of people literally that work behind the scenes to help the crew train, to ensure the success of the mission and the safety of the crew. Tell us a little bit more about what you think about those people’s contributions.

The space program would not be possible without each of the many workers. Their contributions are so vital. Whenever I visit work sites in Houston, in Florida, and in other places all around the United States and in Japan, I learn a lot from them and each time I learn a lot and I really appreciate their hard work and their dedications. So when I go to space, I will go to space with many people in my thoughts.

Tell us, if you would, kind of in a synopsis fashion what the key objectives are for STS-131?

The main objectives of STS-131 are to deliver the Leonardo large module to the International Space Station and to supply all the science experiments equipment and the critical spare parts of the International Space Station.

And as a Mission Specialist on this flight, tell us what some of your primary responsibilities are.

I am the Load Master on this STS-131 flight. It is like orchestrating all the transfer activities, more than one hundred twenty hours and also I will operate the space shuttle robotic arm to inspect the space shuttle, our thermal tiles, which may have damaged from ascent. Also, Stephanie and I will operate the station robotic arm to berth and unberth the Multi Purpose Logistics Module from the International Space Station.

As the Load Master, what challenges do you anticipate there will be for you in orchestrating this massive amount of transfer that you have to do back and forth between the MPLM and the space station? What challenges do you think you will face?

Yes, exactly. Load Master seems to be a challenging job. I’m the Load Master on STS-131 always with Stephanie Wilson’s help and we will deliver more than six tons of supplies to the International Space Station and we’ll bring unnecessary equipment to the Earth, so the transfer activities will take about more than 120 hours so it is very challenging to orchestrate all the activities in order. Some hardware has constraints so some hardware needs to be transferred in certain order and in a certain way. So I need to understand the hardware very well. It is a challenging part. It’s like moving into a new house. Some items needs to be treated very carefully and some items need to be transferred in a certain order. I believe it will go well with all my great crew members’ help.

Tell us what level of involvement the station crew will have in the docked operations during the mission and how critical their involvement is to the success of the mission.

The station crew plays a very critical role on each shuttle mission. They will prepare all the tools we need beforehand and help us work comfortably on ISS so without their help the mission would not be successful and I’m looking forward to working with each of the station crew members on board.

The day after you make it to orbit the crew is scheduled to do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior. Tell us about that process and the role you’ll play in that activity.

The space shuttle’s inspection is a teamwork. Most of our crew members will participate in the inspection activities and Jim Dutton, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and I will take turns to inspect each part of the space shuttle’s portside wing and the starboard side wing and the nose cap with help of Stephanie and Dex. The responsible person will make sure the robotic arm is maneuvering as planned and also make sure all the clearances to the structure are maintained. The supporting person will help to adjust the camera views and follow the procedures and make sure each step is conducted in order. So it’s a very big teamwork.

Then the following day at some point the shuttle crew will have the station in its sights and you’ll start closing the gap between the two spacecraft. Tell us what you’re scheduled to do for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.

I will operate the space shuttle’s docking mechanism with Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger. So once the space shuttle reaches the space station, we will operate the docking systems using some switches and monitors, its telemetries and make sure these two vehicles are secure to each other.

And then after the spacecraft have docked, you’ll open the hatches and go inside, say ‘hi’ and get acclimated. What else are you scheduled to do for that day that you dock, once you make it into the station?

After the space shuttle docks to the International Space Station and we open the hatch between these two vehicles, Stephanie and I will operate the space station’s robotic arm and probably in the cupola robotic work station which is delivered in 20A, STS-130 mission. So we are looking forward to using the cupola robotic work station. It will be very fantastic because it has lots of window views. We will operate the space station’s robotic arm to grapple the OBSS, the boom to inspect the space shuttle’s thermal tiles because we have to maintain the clearances between the MPLM logistic module to the OBSS’ boom. So we will grapple and retrieve the OBSS with station arm, then hand it over to the space shuttle robotic arm to make it easy to unberth the MPLM logistics module from the payload bay.

And then tell us about how the MPLM will then be unberthed and tell us when that’s scheduled to happen.

It’s going to be on Flight Day 4. Stephanie and I will again operate the space station robotic arm to retrieve MPLM into the payload bay and Stephanie will retrieve the MPLM and unberth it and I will fly the station arm from the low hover position to the International Space Station docking mechanism. It’s going to be a mixture of the automatic program mode and also the manual mode using the hand controllers. We’ve been trained a lot together to make sure it’s going to be successful.

During the first EVA with Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson, everyone else is busy doing intravehicular stuff inside, you’ll be busy starting your transfers. What items will you get to first? Are there items that need to go before others or how does the plan work for transfer on that day?

The transfer activities on EVA days are challenging because we cannot transfer huge items because it interferes with EVAs and robotics arms operations. So we determine specific order with the transfer on the EVA days and so we need to understand each constraint and each order of the transfer activities on the EVA days especially.

And are there any items that day that again need to go? What items should we expect to see transferred that day?

Some items need to be retrieved before EVA because Rick and Clay will need these items for EVAs and on Flight Day 5, during EVA 1, we will transfer some racks to the Node 3 or to the JEM, the Kibo module, so that these activities won’t interfere with robotics work station which is located in the U.S. lab or in the cupola.

Talk about, if you would, the advantage of being able to use the cupola to do robotic work. What’s the advantage of that?

The cupola’s advantage is its wide views through the windows. Usually we use the camera views to operate a robotic arm. We use three monitors and sometimes in addition to the three monitors we use additional monitors to see how the clearance is but in cupola we can see directly through the windows so it has a very huge advantage.

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STS-131 Mission Specialist Naoko Yamazaki attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

If you would, the MPLM for people who may not be familiar with what it is, give us your best description of it, what it looks like, how big it might be, how it’s shaped…

Leonardo, no, but the three MPLMs the European Space Agency has built is about twenty-one feet long and fifteen feet in diameter and it weighs 4.5 tons when empty and it can carry about six tons of supplies to the space station. It has a great capability to bring back some equipment back to the Earth as well.

We are approaching the scheduled end of the space shuttle era. It invokes certain emotions from certain people who have been involved in the space program and with the shuttle or who just have lasting memories. What does the possibility of the shuttle coming to an end mean to you?

Well, it means a lot to me. Space shuttle has been a symbol of all the hard work and the dedication of engineers and astronauts and administrators who have been involved in this program. I think we should celebrate its accomplishment and at the same time we have to keep the dream of space alive.

Do you have any space shuttle memories that you could share with us and if so tell us why those moments made such an impact on you?

Well the memories of the space shuttle are memories related to the Japanese astronauts. Almost seventeen years ago, Mamoru Mohri flew on the space shuttle for the first time as a Japanese. Then Chiaki Mukai flew twice on a space shuttle and the last one was with John Glenn. Also Koichi Wakata flew on the space shuttle to the space station and he was also the first crew member on the space station long duration expedition crew member. Also Soichi Noguchi was on the Return to Flight Mission and Takao Doi did the first EVA as a Japanese. Aki Hoshide brought the main Kibo module on to the space station. So all these space shuttle memories are meant to me a lot and inspired me a lot to do a better job during the training.

How do you imagine the space shuttle might be remembered in a world where space travel between worlds has become as commonplace as airplane travel is today on earth?

The original purpose of the space shuttle was as a shuttle or just transportation system back and forth like an airplane and when we travel between worlds like we travel between countries, the transportation system will be like a shuttle type system. So the original purpose will be replicated and in that way I believe that the space shuttle will be always remembered in the future.