Astronauts as the Origin of Space Society: Reflecting on a Webinar

Last week I attended a seminar on the topic of ‘Astronauts as the Origin of Space Society’ hosted by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. The main speaker was Naoko Yamazaki, an aerospace engineer and an astronaut. In April 2010, she was onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery as part of the crew of STS-131, an assembly and resupply mission to the International Space Station. During the webinar Yamazaki was interviewed by Doug Millard, a Deputy Keeper, Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum, London.

Millard began by giving a brief overview of the history of human forays into space, from the early Russian cosmonauts to the massive international missions at the ISS and the currently unfolding trend of space tourism. Yamazaki then shared some of her own experiences training to be an astronaut, her mission to space, and current activities. It was a very interesting webinar and the main webinar (i.e. not the questions and discussion) are available on YouTube.

I was interested in the seminar from a few perspectives.

First, I was interested in the symbolic aspects of space travel and how Japanese involvement in international programmes (as well as its own activities) may impact how Japan is seen on the international stage. That Yamazaki is a woman and so there may be a degree to which she could be seen as example to women/girls in Japan was something that also drew me to the seminar.

Of course, like many, I have an interest in space. I fundamentally believe that space exploration is necessary. At least in the long term. We know that in the future the Earth will die, so if humans are to continue, space exploration has to happen. There are many things we could learn and benefit from space exploration. But it brings dangers too – such as from unknown illnesses.

However, I do think more needs to be done to think about what sort of trips to space are done now. I cannot see how we can justify trips to space – particularly for tourism – burning up so many resources in the process when all of us are being encouraged to think more carefully about the consumption of resources. Anyone paying to go to space should be paying at least the equivalent sums of money addressing social problems on earth, as well as ensuring that an appropriate investment is done to not only offset any environmental impact of the mission, but that more is put back into taking care of this planet.

Personally, I cannot imagine ever going to space. One of the many issues I would have with it is how difficult and unlikely it would be to return. Although you can revisit anywhere in your mind – and I regularly do this with places that I have visited, particularly those for my research such as Osutaka-no-One – in the end, it’s usually possible to go back to the actual place again, although the Covid-19 pandemic has naturally impeded with this. This impediment has further reinforced why I would rather not even go to space in the first place.

Anyway, it was a great seminar and I am now thinking about whether there are places for aspects of its contents and the issues to be included in the update to my book Japan: The Basics.

Further details about the event can be found on the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation site (this is also where the cover picture for this post was taken from)

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