I MADE MY FIRST TRIP TO JAPAN shortly after my first trip to space, on the shuttle Endeavour, in 1996. The main job on that mission had been to retrieve the Space Flyer Unit, a Japanese satellite launched months earlier as a platform to test materials and conduct experiments in orbit. After we returned the satellite to Earth, our six-man crew went on a post-flight tour of Japan, visiting schools, civic groups, and the factories where components of the satellite had been manufactured.
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Despite my longstanding interest in Japanese culture, I was unprepared for the warmth and adulation that greeted our shuttle crew. At one school we stepped out of our cars to see a line of 200 children, each holding a bouquet of flowers. In synchrony they rushed up and surrounded us in a gigantic floral arrangement, calling out our names and singing songs as they showered us with the bouquets. I still have some of those flowers.
If we NASA astronauts were treated as honored guests, our Japanese crewmate, Koichi Wakata, was a rock star. One evening in Tokyo, we were walking back to our hotel from an embassy party when a group of teenage girls walked by in the other direction. They continued for another 40 feet or so, then turned around and ran back to us, screaming, "Wakata-san, Wakata-san!" When they reached us, they began jumping up and down, screaming and flapping their arms rapidly. We saw this behavior by young girls again and again around Koichi, so often we came to expect the dance and gave it a name: the Penguin.
I've returned to Japan several times since, and in some ways, the country feels to me like the America of the 1950s. At gas stations, attendants surround your car, filling it up, washing windshields, and checking the tires. There are greeters in department stores and someone to push the button for you on the elevator. The taxis are so clean that the drivers wear cloth gloves and the seats are covered in white lace linen. People leave their handbags on the counter when using a public restroom. In Tokyo you can walk safely almost anywhere late at night.
And, like the United States in the 1950s, Japan is embarking on an expensive, long-term program of human space exploration. More than 20 years after joining the International Space Station partnership, the country will finally see a return on its investment when its Kibo ("Hope") laboratory is installed as the station's last and largest module, alongside NASA's Destiny, Russia's Zvezda, and Europe's newly arrived Columbus.
Kibo has most everything you'd want in a space laboratory. Its 37-foot-long pressurized module affords plenty of volume for astronauts to conduct research. An exposed facility attaches like a porch to the outside of Kibo so that some experiments can be exposed to the vacuum of space. There's a separate storage module, and a Japanese-built robot arm, or remote manipulator system, to move equipment from one location to another. A final Japanese contribution, called the H-II Transfer Vehicle, is a rocket-borne cargo container that can deliver supplies or research equipment to the station. The cargo vehicle is scheduled to be launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan next year.
During the two decades in which the Japanese have been designing and building this hardware, they have also been assembling a modest astronaut corps. Today there are eight Japanese astronauts, five of whom have already flown on NASA's space shuttle. All have science or technology backgrounds; none came from the world of military aviation.
Takao Doi, a shuttle veteran and one of the first three Japanese astronauts chosen in 1985, will operate the station's robot arm to install Kibo's first piece, the storage module, on the space station this spring (the pressurized module will go up on the shuttle after that, and the exposed facility will be delivered several flights later). Wakata, who has flown in space twice, will be the station's first long-term resident from Japan, arriving this October for a five-month stay.
Japan's first shuttle astronaut was Mamoru Mohri, a materials scientist who flew twice in space and now, at 60, runs the Miraikan science museum in Tokyo. Along with Doi and Chiaki Mukai (who in 1998 was on the same crew with John Glenn during the latter's celebrated return to space), Mohri reported to Houston for training in late 1985. He remembers the culture shock. "Before I went to the Johnson Space Center, I didn't realize there were so many astronauts training," he says. "At that time there were about 150. Every three months a space shuttle was being launched."
Mohri is the most famous of Japan's small band of astronauts, and he appears on Japanese television frequently as a spokesman for space exploration. "For a long time [after his 1992 shuttle mission], I was the only one who had flown," he says. While the news media pay close attention when a Japanese astronaut flies (the most recent was Soichi Noguchi, a former aeronautical engineer who was on the first post-Columbia shuttle mission, in 2005), human spaceflight hasn't gotten the headlines lately that other Japanese space accomplishments have, such as the Hayabusa probe's visit to asteroid Itokawa in 2005, and the high-definition TV images that the Kaguya orbiter recently began beaming back from the moon. The launch of Kibo promises higher visibility for Japan's astronauts, who will now spend months at a time working in orbit inside a Japanese-built module.