Japan has always been at the forefront of technology, whether it’s developing complex new robotics, or useless, useless crap. But I don’t think most people realize that when it comes to space technology, Japan is right up there with the United States and Russia.
Though of course, Japan’s space program has its unique quirks that set it apart from NASA or the Russian Federal Space Agency; like using origami to train astronauts, its own Lego set, and psychoanalyzing dirty dishes.
But I might be getting ahead of myself – let’s start with the basics. What’s the Japanese space program like?
Japan’s Space Agency
Japan’s equivalent of NASA is the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or 独立行政法人宇宙航空研究開発機構 for short. (“JAXA” works, too.)
JAXA does pretty much everything you’d imagine a space agency to do – launching satellites into space, conducting scientific studies, and training astronauts to work on the International Space Station (ISS).
If JAXA is Japan’s NASA, then Tanegashima Space Center is Japan’s Cape Canaveral. Tanegashima is where JAXA launches all of its
Gundams satellites, both scientific and commercial.
An exception to that was Kibo, a module built for the ISS by JAXA. Kibo (or “hope”) was launched into space aboard the US space shuttle.
But some of the most high-profile work that JAXA has done has been sending Japanese astronauts into space to work on the ISS. But how does JAXA choose just who gets to go?
Japanese Astronaut Selection
At JAXA, astronaut training can be a little wacky. A lot of astronaut training nowadays is just testing if you’ll go insane if you’re isolated for extended periods of time.
Space exploration is cool, but sitting around the ISS for six months can be kind of boring. And if The Shining taught me anything, it’s that leaving people isolated for a long time can be a very bad idea.
To test people, JAXA isolates small groups of astronaut candidates for days at a time and makes them do menial tasks. Mary Roach’s excellent book Packing For Mars talks about one of those tasks: folding 1,000 origami cranes.
In traditional Japanese culture, folding 1,000 paper cranes is supposed to bring good luck; at JAXA, folding cranes tests how crazy you’ll go if you have to fold 1,000 paper cranes.
The genius of the Thousand Cranes test is that it creates a chronological record of each candidate’s work. As they complete their cranes, candidates string them on a single long thread. At the end of the isolation, everyone’s string of cranes will be taken away and analyzed. It’s forensic origami: As the deadline nears and the pressure increases, do the candidate’s creases become sloppy? How do the first ten cranes compare to the last?
And it’s not just origami cranes that are analyzed with a fine tooth comb. Every single little detail of an astronaut candidate’s performance is put under the microscope.
I can understand why JAXA does all of this. I mean, if you’re going to spend millions of dollars to send somebody up into space, you should probably make sure that they’re suited for the job.
But some of JAXA’s tests seem a tad ridiculous. After astronaut candidates eat lunch, their dirty plates are carted off to a room full of experts who analyze what every little thing means.
Once again, Mary Roach tells us about the tests:
What the candidates don’t know is that the dirty dishes are then loaded onto a dolly and wheeled away to be photographed. The photos will be delivered to the psychiatrists and psychologists, along with the origami birds.
I would understand psychologists talking to potential astronauts to see if their parents didn’t hug them enough as children, but looking at pictures of a candidate’s dirty dishes? That seems like a bit much.
What Is JAXA Doing Now?
Unfortunately, prospects for Japanese astronauts are starting to look a litle dim as manned spaced flight is winding down. Last year, NASA scrapped its space shuttle program, and the current economic crisis means that governments are cutting budgets for space travel.
But that’s not to say that JAXA is sitting around doing nothing. The agency still sends astronauts up to the ISS with Russian spaceships, and continue to conduct scientific tests in collaboration with other space agencies, trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe.
And people have shown that they’re still really interested in JAXA. After popular demand, Lego recently released a model of JAXA’s Hayabusa spacecraft, complete with a tiny Lego figure of Hayabusa’s project leader.
Surprisingly, the Hayabusa model is selling like hotcakes, even overseas. Even at $50 a pop, Lego’s success really shows that people still have a love for space exploration that can’t be ignored.