Japan has selected its first new astronaut candidates in more than 13 years in preparation for future missions to the moon with NASA’s Artemis program.
Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), named Makoto Suwa, a 46-year-old risk reduction specialist at the World Bank, and Ayu Yoneda, a 28-year-old surgeon working for the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, as the agency’s new recruits (opens in new tab) at a press conference held in Tokyo (opens in new tab) on Tuesday (Feb. 28).
Both candidates will now undergo two years of basic training, after which they will be assessed by JAXA for spaceflight assignments. Suwa and Yoneda are the 12th and 13th people to be chosen for Japan’s human spaceflight program since the country’s first career astronauts were selected in 1985.
Currently, JAXA has six active astronauts, all of whom are men, including Koichi Wakata, who is wrapping up his fifth spaceflight and third long-duration stay aboard the International Space Station. If successful in qualifying as an astronaut, Yoneda will become Japan’s third woman to fly into space, after Chiaki Mukai and Naoko Yamazaki, who are both retired from the program.
In addition to possible flights to the space station, Suwa and Yoneda may work on the Gateway, a NASA-led platform still to be built in lunar orbit that is being developed in partnership with JAXA. Or they might be chosen to land on the moon on NASA Artemis missions.
“I think that the moon is something that Japanese people have a very special attachment to, and at the same time, I think that the moon is something that we take for granted, but that gives us a sense of wonder,” said Suwa, who attended Tuesday’s conference virtually from Washington, D.C. “I would like to do my best in my training from now on so that I can contribute to the Artemis program as much as possible.”
Yoneda expressed similar enthusiasm for one day exploring the lunar surface.
“If I had a chance to go there, I want to take on the challenge,” she said. “If I can stand on the moon, I would like to pass on my experiences. I would like to devote myself to it.”
— Facts about JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
— NASA’s Artemis program: Everything you need to know
— International Space Station: Facts about the orbital laboratory
JAXA began its latest astronaut recruitment process in November 2021, resulting in a record 4,127 applications being received. Dubbed the “Hello! Explorers Project,” the selection was Japan’s first not to require a college diploma as a base requirement (though both Suwa and Yoneda have earned advanced degrees).
After a series of exams, including in English and the liberal arts, and screenings, JAXA narrowed the pool down to 50 and then 10 candidates by December 2022. Among the finalists, Suwa was the oldest and Yoneda the youngest.
“The fact that I was selected at this age means that I will be asked what kind of added value I can give back to society by multiplying my experience so far,” said Suwa. “I think that I will continue to concentrate on training for the next few years, but in the back of my mind, I would like to constantly think about how I can make use of my experience as an astronaut.”
The three members of Japan’s previous astronaut class selected in 2009 (opens in new tab) each offered their congratulations (opens in new tab) to their new colleagues.
“I hope that the diversity of the group will increase with the addition of their knowledge and experience, and that we will be able to produce even greater results for future lunar exploration missions and the development of low Earth orbit activities, including those of the private sector,” said Norishige Kanai, who joined his fellow astronauts, Yui Kimiya and Takuya Onishi, in sending messages.
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