JAXA astronaut Dr Koichi Wakata at Modern School

- Varun Sharma   11-02-2016


New Delhi, 8th February: To foster young minds and help them think and act on a global scale, the JAL Foundation (a non-profit organisation) had organised a “Lectures for Globally Minded Citizens” at Modern Public School, Shalimar Bagh. The Foundation has been having similar lectures being delivered in all regions of the world every year. Dr Koichi Wakata, an astronaut at JAXA (Japanese space agency), was the chief guest and delivered a lecture on ‘Current status of manned space flight and future expectations.

Dr Wakata has had four successful space flights – 1996, 2006, 2009 and in 2013. He has accumulated 347 days 8 hours and 33 minutes in space. This is also a record in Japanese human space flight history for the longest stay in space. This is his first trip to India, even though he has overflown the country more than 3000 times during his stay at the ISS (International Space Station). He assumed command of Expedition 39, in his 4th flight, and became the first Japanese ISS commander.

A charming and down to earth man, Dr Wakata talked about how – when he was just five years old, he saw the Apollo 11 mission land on the moon. “That was the trigger for my dream of flying in space.  There were no Japanese astronauts back then – only American astronauts and Russian Cosmonauts. It became my dream to go to space,” he said.

He started the lecture with re-introducing India’s very own space hero – Kalpana Chawla, who was unfortunately killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. “Dr Chawla is a hero of India. I had worked with her on different projects at Houston centre and Johnson Space Centre of NASA. She was a dedicated aviator, astronaut and scientist,” said Wakata.  “I was also part of the recovery effort after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle,’ he added.

The JAXA astronaut brought with him – pictures and videos of his time training for space flight and his time in actual space. “The things we stand to gain, outweighs the risks involved in space flight,” he said. He was one of the people who helped assemble the ISS. Since the ISS is a 15-country cooperative development, he had to travel all across the world – training on various systems and sub-systems of technologies in the station.

In his PowerPoint presentation, Dr Wakata shared pictures of himself and his colleagues at various stages of training before space flight – underwater tests (simulating zero gravity), flight training, equipment training; amongst other things.

“The International Space Station is the size of a football field. Unlike the pictures of earth seen from the moon, we cannot see the entire sphere of the earth. Since ISS is in the LEO (Low Earth Orbit), we can only see 4,000 square kilometres from our viewing stations on the space station. When the sun shines, the temperature can go as high as 120 degrees Celsius, and  -150 degrees during the night" he said.

He also talked about the difference in diet, sleep and exercise you require in zero gravity. “Inside the spacecraft, things just float – because we are all falling towards earth, and at the same time moving forward really fast (28,000 Kmph). We do a variety of experiments in microgravity. High quality protein crystal growth experiments can be done thanks to microgravity. A lot of new medicines are being worked on at the ISS,” he added.

Even when we are sitting on a chair, our body is under some exercise because of gravity – to sit erect. Microgravity starves the body of this exercise. The spine needs compression, or a reduction in bone density will occur. To counter this, the astronauts go through physical exercises every single day. The machines are very similar to the ones in our regular gym, but have special modifications that help the astronauts work on them and not float away.

Showing a quick video of his six months in space, Wakata was able to touch most aspects of life in space. “Your core body temperature rises in microgravity. My own body temperature rose by a whole degree in comparison to my temperature at earth. In space, we are not only experimenting, but are also experimented upon. Our physiological changes and mental status’s are also monitored and studied,” he said. “Since we cannot get fresh water on the space station, we have to recycle urine. So, you basically turn yesterday’s coffee to tomorrow’s coffee,” he quipped amidst a roaring laughter from his listeners.