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Preflight Interview: Soichi Noguchi
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Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi works at a robotic workstation in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you have ended up as a professional space traveler. So what was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to want to become an astronaut?

A: Well, I really liked all the rockets and spacecraft and space adventures when I was in childhood. I watched all the movies like “Star Wars,” or the “Star Trek”s, or the Japanese anime when themed with the space adventure. When I was a high school freshman I saw the space shuttle, STS-1, go up on television and I thought, wow, this is a great career, great profession; I wonder if I can be someday like a space traveler. At that time we don’t have any Japanese manned space program, there’s no Japanese astronaut. I was just pursuing a career for the space engineering and space science and was just lucky enough to be selected as one of the Japanese astronaut candidate.

Let me learn a little bit more about your background; let’s start with the place where you are from, where you grew up: Chigasaki, right?


Tell us about that.

All right, Chigasaki is a small town, like 50 kilometers south of Tokyo, it’s by the shore, it’s a beautiful shoreline and very beautiful landscape.

Were you able to see it, to identify places that you’re familiar with, when you were in space?

Yeah, last time, STS-114, I could see my hometown, and took a bunch of pictures and sent it back to my parents; they were very thrilled to see the picture.

Do you have a good sense of how that place, and the people who were there as you grew up, helped make you the person that you are today?

Yes, well, its people are open-minded and very open to the new experience, and they’re very motivate their young kids to pursue the new career, so maybe that’s what makes me become an astronaut.

You said that as a child you were interested in rockets and in the space program; tell me about how you got involved in it. Tell us the story of your career, in school and then your professional career that led you to become an astronaut.

Yeah, I went to the high school in Chigasaki, and I saw the space shuttle go up on the TV, and I thought, this is a great career, and I start studying in depth math and science. I go to University of Tokyo in the faculty of engineering, and then I studied the aeronautics and also the space engineering. After graduation I get into one of the heavy industry company, which actually the manufacturer of Japanese Experiment Module, the Exposed Facility, so at that time I started to become more involved in space program. And back in 1995 there was the astronaut candidate selection in Japan, and I applied for it and I was just lucky enough to be selected. I came to JSC summer of 1996 and since then I live in Houston and I flew in space shuttle four years ago, and after that I started long-duration training in Star City and also at JSC.

And your choice of career, as someone who flies in space, is a career that we know has its dangers. Tell me, Soichi, what it is that you feel that we get as a result of flying people in space that you feel makes it worth that risk that you take?

Well, all the science achievement that we are bringing out from the space station is really huge, and we have to be there in order to get those results. The other thing is motivation to the younger generation, what we are doing is definitely motivate the young kids, like I was motivated by watching the shuttle go up and pursue my scientific career. So, I hope that the younger generation by watching us and the space station, get motivated and pursue their career for the science and technology. And also all the international cooperation going on the space station, in turn, will help our ground relationship amongst many countries, so those international relationship, motivation to the younger generation, and the science achievement will be our benefits out of space program.

You are a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 22 and 23 crews. Summarize your main responsibilities and the goal of your flight.

Well, I’ll be a flight engineer of the Expedition 22/23, and my main task will be assisting the commander both on ascent and entry, and while I’m on orbit I’ll be also JEM [Japan Experiment Module] specialist, meaning I’ll be mainly responsible for all the activity inside the JEM, and also in charge of the USOS [United States Operating Segment] payloads.

Now you made a short visit to the International Space Station on a shuttle flight in early 2005. What are you looking forward to now about your first long-duration mission?

Yes, this is my second flight; I flew to International Space Station in 2005 on STS-114, and that time was a short flight and was a great experience and I really happy to be back there. But the biggest difference since then is that we have lots of new modules, including the Japanese experimental module, Kibo, so I’m really looking forward to seeing the actual Kibo on orbit. I was really involved in developmental phase of Kibo; this time I can see it in action, so I’m really looking forward to it.

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Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi is pictured on the flight deck of space shuttle Endeavour (STS-130) while docked with the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

You’ve talked to some of your colleagues who have been there and seen it on orbit; what have they told you about it?

Yes, Takao Doi, Aki Hoshide and recently Koichi Wakata has been there, and Koichi spend a lot of time doing the experiment in Kibo. They all say it’s very beautiful module, very quiet, and latest and greatest and so I’m really happy to follow their path.

When you and your crewmates arrive on the station to join Jeff Williams and Max Suraev, right away there’s a planned spacewalk for Max and Oleg [Kotov]. Tell me about the spacewalk plan throughout the time that you and your crewmates are going to be on board.

Yes, right after our arrival the Russians are planning their EVA and Oleg and Max will go out the door and do some tasks outside and for us mainly helping them prepare for the spacewalk, like preparing the spacesuit and prepare some tools. Right now the Russians are using a lot of U.S. tools for EVA, so we’ll be helping them, and this should be a wonderful experience for both of them. I believe this is the first time for Max to do the EVA, so I’ll be happy to help in whatever they need.

This is a Russian EVA and they’ll be out on that section of the station. What work are they doing outside?

I think they will install the new hardware and they will egress from the Pirs module DC-1, and then together, I think, usually it’s EVAs a little bit shorter than the U.S. EVA, but they have lots to do, and they also have lots of new module coming in next year, so I think they’ll do some prep work for that.

Crews on the station do a lot of different kinds of work throughout the course of a week or a month on orbit. For instance, early next year your crew is scheduled to be rearranging some of the external station components, but doing it from inside. Tell me about the why and the how of relocating PMA [Pressurized Mating Adapter]-3 and the External Stowage Platform 3.

Yes. PMA-3 is kind of a door, the back porch to the space shuttle, and it has a docking port, and we are rearranging the PMA-3 for future expansion of International Space Station. We’ll be bringing the new module to the station and we have to rearrange the docking port, and we will do that by using the station arm to bring the PMA-3 to other location so that we can free up the docking port for new module. And the same for ESP-3, there is to store the kind of spare equipment outside the station. And interesting thing about the ESP, External Storage Platform, is I did ESP-2 installation in the last space shuttle mission, and that time I did it EVA—I was outside fastening the bolts. This time ESP-3 is kind of fully automated so we can do it, everything from inside, so I’ll be probably driving the arm and sending a command to fasten the bolts, so it’s kind of a different experience.

Crew members are also spending a lot more time lately on science activities, much of that focusing on how people react to being in microgravity, and how they can live there, and how they respond when they get back to Earth. Tell me about some of the experiments in that area that you’re going to be working on during Expeditions 22 and 23.

One of the medical experiment that I’m involved in is how to suppress the bone loss during the long spaceflight. It is known that astronauts during the long duration lose the bone density, or lose calcium from the body, and we’d like to find a way to suppress those bone loss, and JAXA has proposed one of the medical experiment that I will taking the medicine to see how they can suppress this bone loss mechanism. If you’re successful we’ll be able to suppress the bone loss, thus making our rehab session little bit shorter, and also that will help the ordinary people going to space without much of a difficulty. So I’ll be very interested to see the results of this experiment.

There are others as well; tell me about a couple.

A couple of other experiments involves like protein growth, crystal growth, and we have a kind of a joint project with the government of Japan for the target protein, protein growth program, and also a nanostructure experiment that we will use for the manufacturing the semiconductor, and also we will grow the plants inside the JEM to see how it actually grows in zero gravity. We start from the seed up to the actual harvesting of the plants, so should be interesting.

The science in the Kibo complex is a new capability of the station, and one unique capability it provides will come after your crew completes a checkout of the payload airlock and the Kibo’s small fine arm. Tell me about those pieces of equipment, how using them will expand the science operations on the International Space Station.

Yeah, great. Actually this is the first time that we activate the JEM airlock, the payload dedicated airlock, and the very first equipment that will be brought out to space is the small fine arm. Both of them actually launched in our HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], the supply vehicle, and we will, T.J. [Creamer] and I will assemble the airlock pumps to make it available for the external use, and also we will assemble the small fine arm inside JEM. So before we bring it outside we will assemble the robotic arm itself inside the JEM. Then we put it on the slide table, putting it outside, and the JEM arm will capture the small fine arm and put it onto the storage platform, on the Exposed Facility. That will make a small dexterous maneuver, like fastening the bolts, moving the equipment from one place to another, much easier, so that will definitely expand our capability on the experiment on the Exposed Facility.

And it sounds, actually deploying the small fine arm in that way, will also demonstrate the capability of using the airlock and the arm to move things inside and outside the station.

That’s right. The dedicated payload airlock enable us to retrieve or deploy the science experiment outside without the help of actual EVA, because EVA takes, obviously, time and lot of resource. Just using the JEM airlock, very small volume dedicated to payload use, will enable us to more frequently use, enable us to transfer the equipment inside and outside.

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Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi works with the European Space Agency (ESA) science payload Selectable Optical Diagnostics Instrument / Influence of Vibration on Diffusion in Liquids (SODI/IVIDIL) hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) facility located in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

The Japanese additions to the station are proving their worth.

That’s right, so we try to use this capability to share with other international partners.

Early next year a shuttle mission aboard Endeavour is due to arrive at the station with some new modules. Tell me about these new station components that are coming up called Node 3 and cupola.

Node 3, we call it Tranquility, and the shuttle crew, the 20A crew, will bring this big module. This is almost the last of the USOS addition to the space station, and it is very vital to the crew habitability because it will house lots of environmental control system racks, like Water Recovery System, and we will be very looking forward to it because since it’s very big it will also help us some stowage issue what’s going with the station right now. And also has a big window called cupola. It’s a six-window module, give us some very beautiful view over the Earth, and also we will use that as a robotic arm workstation, so that we have a direct view of what the robotic arm doing outside also with the help of monitors, but we really love the direct view of what the arms are doing.

And that’ll be the first time—arm operators up until now have only had a television monitor view of what’s been going on.

That’s right. On the shuttle side they have lots of windows but the station side is limited to the couple of monitor views, so I really think that will enhance our capability and also good for the safety of using the robotic arms.

You touched on the idea of a lot of different systems in racks that are already on the station that are going to get moved into Tranquility. Talk a little more about the choreography of rearranging, moving things into Node 3, and then opening up spaces in other modules that could be filled with other things.

Yeah, moving racks is very interesting task. I did a couple of them in STS-114 but the big racks, it weighs a couple hundred pounds, with a touch of finger, it’s just very, you feel like you’re Superman and the moving the system rack is, you have to deactivate the system first and move it and then we have to reactivate so it’s lots of minute steps that are involved and with a lot of help with the ground we have to move the system rack to the new location and reactivate. So it’s time-consuming but definitely help us using the new module for better, better use.

That work, in fact, will continue after the shuttle crew departs, right?

Right. The part of them will be done during the shuttle crew’s still available, but most of the system rack reactivation step we have to do after shuttle departure.

Up to this point in your mission you have been part of a crew of five. But in March Jeff and Max go home, you’re back to a crew of three.

That’s right.

What is the reasoning behind this, what’s called an indirect crew rotation plan?

Now it’s crew of six on board; we continuously have two Soyuz for the emergency escape vehicle, and usually have one more Progress, that’s a cargo ship on the Russian side, and due to the number of the docking ports on the Russian side, currently it’s somewhat hard to have the third Soyuz to dock to the space station. That’s kind of force us to do the indirect handover: the previous crew go home and the new crew arrives so that we can cope with the limited number of docking ports on the Russian side.

And during that period of time, when you are three, a good portion of that time before the next Soyuz arrives will be occupied with your work with the crew on shuttle mission STS-131, or 19A. Tell me about what’s coming up on that mission and what you all will be doing there.

Yeah, STS-131, 19A, is a supply mission. They have a MPLM [multipurpose logistics module] on the cargo bay, so they’ll bring us a lot of, a new module, new racks, and along with the supply items. And they have WORF [Window Observational Rack Facility] window observatory rack facility, and also some science payload racks along with it. And for me some more important items on the 19A is that they will bring our Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, so actually this is the first time that the two Japanese astronauts are on it, or in space [simultaneously], actually, so that’ll be a very historic moment. I’m really looking forward to have her on orbit.

You are going to get three new station crewmates shortly thereafter, on the current schedule. How will operations on board change when Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Caldwell Dyson join you for Expedition 23, and you go back to a crew of six.

That’s right. The Expedition 23 starts with Sasha, Misha and Tracy comes on board, and they’re very happy crew and they’re very experienced and really looking forward to have them on orbit, and a six-person crew, I think we have lots of time for the science so it’s a good thing both for the Russian side and the U.S. side.

There is another Russian component of the station, known as the Mini Research Module 1, which is scheduled to arrive on a shuttle flight that is due after you have departed. But tell me about that new module and what you and your crewmates are going to be doing on board the station to get it ready for MRM 1 to be installed on Zarya.

MRM 1, or МИМ 1 [Russian acronym], will be docked to the nadir side of the FGB; that’s also a part of the increasing the functionality on the Russian docking port. Also it houses the, some Russian payload inside, and our crew, especially the Russian crew member, will be busy preparing for docking the new module right before the final stage of our mission, so probably help Oleg and Misha, Sasha for preparing for the MRM 1.

You’re looking at an on orbit of five months or so this flight. How do you imagine that it will be different than your first flight of a couple of weeks, or how you will respond to being in space for that longer period of time?

I’ll be really looking forward to the long-duration flight because what I heard from Koichi that from Day 1 to the last day, it’s full of new experience every day and it’s just different from the short-duration flight so we have to pace myself to be ready for the long-duration flight, but I really looking forward to it. It should be a new experience.

Our whole planet’s space exploration effort has reached a new level with the expansion of the permanent crew on board this space station to six people, and with representatives of all the partner agencies that are involved. Soichi, tell me how you think human exploration of space is going to proceed in the years to come, and how the International Space Station is going to have a role in shaping that future.

Yeah, the space exploration is really vital key for all the mankind to expand our capability, and space station is the first step toward many new project to come. Now, on the International Space Station many countries are helping each other for peaceful cause, and I really hope that this friendship will continue throughout the next new mission, and we have great science going on with the great achievement and also we are learning a lot about how the human body reacts to the zero gravity, and those knowledge will definitely help us understand how we can live on Mars or other planets, so I think the space station is a great start for many new projects to come.