In the popular culture of postwar Japan, children were fed the same star fantasies and dreams of intergalactic space travel as their American counterparts, but they were denied the means to live the adventure. Despite its many technological marvels, this Earth-bound country had no astronauts.
That is scheduled to change once the U.S. space shuttle program, currently beset by technical problems, gets back on track.
Japan’s National Space Development Agency has chosen its first payload specialist, a poetic physicist named Mamoru Mori, to conduct experiments aboard a future shuttle.
Mori, 42, was one of three astronaut candidates selected by NASDA, Japan’s primary space agency, from 533 applicants in 1985. One of them was to be sent into space three years ago, until the U.S. shuttle program was sidelined.
“After the Challenger disaster, I was a bit worried,” Mori said in a recent interview. “But I trusted NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration), because space development is the American frontier.”
The delay has resulted in an embarrassing development for Japan’s official space program. Instead of Mori, the first Japanese in space is likely to be a television journalist whose company paid a substantial sum of money for a berth aboard the Soviet space station Mir. That space mission-cum-publicity stunt is scheduled for December.
But Mori will be the first professional astronaut, Japan’s first space hero--the “right stuff” role model that has long been missing for Japanese youth.
Mori, a native of the rural northern island of Hokkaido, went to Australia in the early 1970s to study physics at South Australia State Flinders University, where he received a doctorate in 1976. He returned to teach at Hokkaido University and was an associate professor there in nuclear engineering in 1985 when he noticed a NASDA advertisement in the newspaper--"Wanted: Astronaut.”
“When I saw that ad,” Mori recalled excitedly, “I said ‘Oh, this is the job for me!’ ”
It was not the first thought he had given to space travel. Mori said he began dreaming of the voyage in 1963, when, as a first-year high school student, he went camping in a remote northeastern area of Hokkaido to view a total eclipse of the sun.
“It was a very strange feeling when the eclipse took place--suddenly a cool breeze started blowing, and I still can hear the crows crying as they flew back to their nests,” Mori said.
“As soon as the eclipse was over, the sun shined like a brilliant diamond, and I had this joyous feeling,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, but later on I thought about it and realized it was because all us creatures on Earth depend on the sun for our existence. I decided I wanted to go into space and see the sun directly.”
Later, specializing in nuclear fission and surface physics at Hokkaido University, Mori set out to simulate space conditions inside a laboratory chamber.
Mori’s shuttle mission is to conduct a set of 34 Japanese-designed materials-processing experiments. The research, dubbed “Fuwatto” after a Japanese expression suggesting the floating qualities of weightlessness, will set the stage for further experiments in a Japanese module to be attached to the U.S. space station, to be launched later in the decade with cooperation from space agencies in Europe, Canada and Japan.
Eventually, Mori sees Japan pursuing its own, independent manned space program.
“I’m not talking about a space race--this shouldn’t be a matter of competition,” Mori said. “But the Challenger accident is a good example of how other countries should have alternative launching capabilities. If Japan had a launch vehicle, there might have been no delay in space development.”
Japanese scientists in NASDA and its sister agency under the Education Ministry are gradually getting increased funding to undertake an ambitious space program that begins with an orientation toward launching commercial and research satellites but eventually may lead to space planes like the American shuttle and to Japan’s own space station.
Some visionaries see the day when Japan will operate package tours to resort hotels on the moon.
“We should have started much earlier,” Mori said. “But still, it’s not too late.”
Mori and his two backup payload specialists--Dr. Chiaki Mukai, 37, a cardiovascular surgeon who may someday become Japan’s first woman in space, and Takao Doi, 35, an aerospace engineer--have now begun a year’s additional training in the United States, mostly at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.