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IMAGE: Chiaki Mukai
Click on the image to hear Payload Specialist Chiaki Mukai's greeting (816 Kb wav).

Preflight Interview: Chiaki Mukai

The 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.

Could 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?

Well, actually 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 older people.

Well 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.

What 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 in space.

What 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.

What 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.

With 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.

John 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.

Any 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 about anything.

What're 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.

Discuss 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 sake.

How 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.

Give 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.

Well, maybe 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.

As 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.

Because 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.

If 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?

Well, this 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.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 01/21/2003
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