Interview: Chiaki Mukai
STS-95 Crew Interview with Chiaki Mukai, payload specialist.
From a background in medicine, as a cardiovascular surgeon, you
became an astronaut. Was flying in space always a big goal of yours,
and how did you first become interested in spaceflight?
Well, to go
into space became my dream when I was 32 years old, because when
I was a child Japan didn't have a space program, so my first dream
was to be a medical doctor. And then, when I was 32 years old, the
Japanese Space Agency was looking for a scientist-type astronaut
to conduct the space experiments. I thought, oh, the space program
is such a wonderful area to use my medical expertise -- I applied
and was lucky enough to be selected.
you discuss some of the experiments that you will primarily be involved
in during the mission, what they're designed to do, what you hope
to learn from them?
my primary responsibility on STS-95 as a Payload Specialist is to
conduct several kinds of experiments, including materials science
and life science -- the biotechnology things. But, life science is
the major interest of this mission, and one of the experiments we
will be doing is the Sleep study in space, and this is exactly the
same experiment which was done on STS-90, in Neurolab, to evaluate
the efficiency of melatonin for astronauts. Because the astronaut
is basically a shift worker and sometimes they report poor sleep
in space, the researchers would like to know if the sleep quality
in space is different from the one on ground, and if so, then melatonin
as a hypnotic would be a great help for them. So that is the one
that we are going to investigate. And also we have one more major
life science payload, which is a Protein Turnover Experiment to
investigate the turnover rate of the body's protein, and also the
muscle breakdown. The hypothesis is, especially during the beginning
of the flight, that due to the microgravity or the stress, the protein
turnover or muscle breakdown will be accelerated. So we would like
to know how the protein turnover will be modified in a different
atmosphere, or different environment such as microgravity, in terms
of different ages -- young people may have a different response than
speaking of older people, what are we trying to learn from the experiments
involving John Glenn that are specifically designed to focus in
on the aging process?
I think this
is such a wonderful project to be able to explore aging in space,
because so much phenomena that happens in space, or after coming
back from space, are very similar to the conditions that afflict
today's elderly. Sleep disturbance is one of them, and then the
cardiovascular response, like hypertension is another, and muscle
breakdown. The beauty of actually having an astronaut as a subject
is those disease-like symptoms, or conditions, are reversible; they
only occur during the short span of the spaceflight and after coming
back from space. So researchers or scientists will be better able
to understand the course of the disease. If we find out the differences
or similarities between the spaceflight physiology and the geriatric
physiology, then we will be able to find out the reason why those
kind of strange situations happen on older people and also on astronauts
flying in space.
are you looking forward to doing on this flight that, from a personal
nature, that you might not have had an opportunity to do when you
flew back on STS-65?
Well, for me,
I would like to show that the space program gives us an opportunity
to work on multiple platforms; one group wants to use it as a science
platform, another may want to use it as a technical platform. I
would like to be able to demonstrate to many people that space as
a working environment can facilitate these multiple applications.
So I believe this mission, STS-95, will be a stepping-stone to the
space station, which will become a semi-permanent or permanent laboratory
are your thoughts on how this crew, it's multinational makeup, multidiscipline
in science, how this flight in particular correlates to typical
space station operations in the future?
I think this
mission will be a model case in miniature of the space station and
how it will operate. That's what I am very much looking forward
to seeing, the construction of the space station, and maybe even
getting to use it.
was your initial reaction when you found out that you were going
to fly with John Glenn, and your thoughts on this place in history?
Well, you know,
I was so glad to hear the news … I appreciate the opportunity, because
he's such a great pioneer in the manned space program. To me, I
think, without his and other's pioneership, the manned space program
wouldn't be doing what it is today. I have learned quite a lot of
things from Senator Glenn during the training; he explained about
the differences between the space program in his time and now. I
was able to learn about the whole history of the manned space program,
and I am always impressed by his attitude towards learning new things.
What he's going to do on STS-95 will encourage so many people, not
only those participating in the space program, but also many, many
people who try the challenge of new things.
the Senator on your crew, the focus of the world will continue to
be on this particular mission. What kind of pressure has that put
on you and your crewmates, to focus on the training, not to let
the distractions interfere with the training -- how difficult has
all this been?
Well, to me
as a Payload Specialist, I have been very much focused on the things
that I really need to do in space -- training is training. Senator
Glenn has given me more advantages to learn about the manned space
program from him, and also I am learning quite a lot of inspiring
things from his attitude toward training. I don't have any problem,
because this is such a focused mission.
Glenn is 77 years old now; how do you think that he's fit into the
training, fulfilled all the requirements to date?
Well you know,
the age factor doesn't really indicate anything, because sometimes
44 years old maybe looks older or acts older than 77 years old.
So, as far as Senator Glenn goes, he has been doing a wonderful
job; working very early in the morning until very late that night,
the same as us. It inspires me, like "I wish I could be like John
Glenn when I am 77 years old." So to me, no matter what the age
is, or gender, or nationality, if the space program requires certain
tasks for us to do, something that supports the mission, then that's
what we do.
concerns that you or your crewmates might have for his well-being
during this flight?
I don't think
so, because NASA has such a wonderful flight medicine clinic to
support his health, and he has already passed every medical checkpoint.
And I think his physical condition is very good, so we don't worry
your thoughts on all of the Glenn attention that has been now absorbed
into this particular mission?
I think that
it's all wonderful. And plus, well, that kind of media attention
to him makes my job easier because now I don't need to speak to
the public; maybe I can just step back and smile and wave and that
works perfect, I guess. So I really enjoy this situation.
the importance of human spaceflight in Japan, and how the Japanese
space program has matured to the point where you're a full-fledged
partner for the International Space Station with expanding operations
in the future.
Since we now
have five Japanese astronauts participating in the U.S. space program,
able to have an opportunity to fly, nowadays so many Japanese people,
especially children, are believing that in the future they could
be able to participate in the space program. And these are the people
who will support the space program, so I think this is a wonderful
opportunity to enhance and promote the future space station program.
That's what I think, and that is one of our responsibilities as
a Japanese Payload Specialist or a Japanese astronaut, to promote
the space program; especially the manned space program, for peoples
crowded is this timeline, how complicated is this flight from your
perspective, since you and Pedro Duque will be involved mostly in
SPACEHAB activities? Give us a flavor for what a typical day of
research will be like aboard Discovery.
Well, we will
be very, very busy. Not only me and Pedro, but everybody. This mission
has a variety of payloads, including the SPARTAN deploy and also
the SPACEHAB. But as far as the SPACEHAB research is concerned,
there will be many interesting experiments which I really love;
like materials science, or fluid physics, or maybe the fish behavior
experiment -- those kinds of things. So our lives will be very busy;
but to me, everything happening in space, especially the experiments,
requires the crew to observe the phenomena -- it will be fantastic.
That happened on my first flight, so I am very much looking forward
to working in SPACEHAB to support the scientific experiments.
us a sense of the comparisons or differences, and how much better
a researcher you will be on this flight than you were on your first
flight when everything was brand new and you were just adapting
to the reality of spaceflight for the first time.
I will be able to work in space more effectively because I know
what's happening in space. I'm hoping that the second flight will
give me a better opportunity, time-wise, or maybe human adaptation-wise,
or perception-wise, to do the experiments or tasks.
far as the geriatrics studies are concerned, give us a sense of
the different types of biomedical areas that you and your crewmates
will be investigating during this mission.
In the life
sciences area, SPACEHAB, they have a number of experiments using
the human as a subject. As I mentioned, the major experiment will
be the Sleep experiment, to evaluate the efficacy of the melatonin
as a hypnotic, and also we have a Protein Turnover Experiment; that's
the two major areas of concern in the life science. But also we
have a biotechnology experiment that will target the bone cell culture.
Its purpose is to investigate why the space environment makes the
bone brittle, and is there any way to prevent the bone from absorption.
The protein crystal growth experiment will focus on crystallization,
and the enzyme or gamma globulin experiment for anti-inflammatory
research. The microencapsulation experiment is also very interesting,
and may have quite a benefit for the people living on Earth. That
experiment will encapsulate the anti-cancer drug in a small capsule
so that the capsule will selectively target a tumor and then slowly
release the drug in that area. Plus we have materials science conducting
research involving things like semiconductors and fluid dynamics.
And this SPACEHAB is a single module, much smaller than the Spacelab
I flew previously, but, it still can support quite a lot of science,
so I'm very much looking forward to working in SPACEHAB.
chances are you may never again fly in space after this mission,
you're going to want to absorb it all; what're you looking forward
to doing on this flight from a personal point of view, that you
didn't have time to do on your first flight?
Well, of course
watching our home planet, that's a wonderful, wonderful thing; the
Earth was so magnificent and I was proud of being a part or a member
of the people who live here. The Earth is so fragile, so beautiful
… that is something I really am looking forward to doing one more
time. Another thing that I'm very much looking forward to, the last
time I flew I was in space for sixteen days, and I got quite used
to the microgravity; and when I came back, I was so amazed by the
Earth's gravitational pull. To feel the actual weight of your body
again, even a sheet of paper; it really makes you realize that this
planet is very special. Everything is controlled and effected by
this phenomena called gravitational force. That is a sensation I
want to feel one more time.
you were a journalist or an author and you were sitting at your
computer and you, Chiaki Mukai, had to write about the historic
significance of your mission, how would you describe it?
mission is of course one of the stepping-stones to the space station,
and its combination of the multinationalities of the crew and the
breadth of the payload science, and, of course, having a legend
such as John Glenn onboard; it should all make for a fantastic story.
I think that is really what I would like people to remember STS-95
for -- what it represented.