In Japan, the Yen Isn't For Glenn; It's for Mukai
Woman astronaut captures pride of nation at time of turmoil, inspiring school kids but unnerving chauvinists.
HOUSTON — THE newsroom is in a frenzy. It's a rare live video feed from space shuttle Discovery, and a dozen reporters dash to a bank of TV monitors, jockeying with their cameras for a clear photograph of the famous astronaut floating across the screen.
"Float up, float up," urges one, squinting through the viewfinder of his expensive digital camera. "Oh, I can see her arm."
It is a fleeting moment, but it's the reason these reporters are here at Johnson Space Center in Houston, reporting every action of their national hero, Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai.
That's right, John Glenn is not the only hero aboard Discovery. Spain has Pedro Duque, the first Spaniard to reach space, and Japan has Dr. Mukai.
Although she is just one of five astronauts in Japan's growing space program, the Japanese seem to have a special place in their hearts for the astronaut they call Chiaki-san. Schoolchildren revere her, and male chauvinists fear her.
And if the newsroom banter at Johnson is any guide - and since most of the reporters here are Japanese, so is the banter - Chiaki-san is just about the only thing folks want to read about in the land of the falling yen.
"Maybe it's because she's a woman," says Mamoru Shikama, a Los Angeles-based writer for the Nikkan Sports News. "I think it's the same thing with John Glenn and even Mark McGwire: People need a hero."
Sumiko Mori, a news reporter for Fuji TV in Tokyo, says she had to write a long profile about Mr. Glenn to help Japanese viewers understand why his flight was so important to Americans. But she did not have to tell anyone why Chiaki-san was important.
"She's the first Japanese woman to go to space, and this is the first time for a Japanese astronaut to go twice into space," says Ms. Mori, who has the on-air personality of a Katie Couric. "She's definitely a hero for kids. Every kid knows what experiments she's conducting, and many of them are doing their own experiments at home."
Trained as a heart surgeon at the prestigious Keio University Hospital, Mukai joined Japan's space program, the National Space Development Agency (NASDA), in 1985. Her first space flight came nine years later, but it was the beginning of a national sensation.
"This time the sky was clear, so we could see the launch all the way up," says Shinichi Nakamura, a Kyodo News Service reporter who has covered both of Mukai's flights. Even six miles away, he could feel the shock waves and vibrations in his face. For the duration of the mission, he plans to write three or four stories a day - all involving Chiaki-san.
One story will likely be an experiment by Tohoku University about how cucumber seeds grow in a weightless environment. Back home in Japan, more than 6,000 schoolchildren will be planting cucumber seeds at the same time as Mukai, offering a comparison on Earth with seeds up in the heavens.
"Children of all ages are taking part, some in high school, some in junior high, some in elementary," says Mr. Nakamura, standing beneath an enormous mural of American astronauts and space technicians - oddly similar to heroic Russian murals of the Krushchev era.
"They'll be learning not only about how plants grow, but about the effects of gravity," says Nakamura. "Without gravity, how do plants decide whether to grow up or down?"
NASDA is quick to note that all of its five astronauts are equally important, but that didn't stop them from producing a gushing, glossy brochure entitled "Astronaut Mukai's Second Shuttle Flight."
"Japanese astronauts have been into space four times," says NASDA spokesman Yoshiya Fukuda, manning the phones at NASA's press office in Houston.
All the flights have taken place aboard NASA shuttles, although one hapless Japanese TV reporter was allowed to spend months aboard the Russian space station, Mir. (Apparently the experience led the reporter to abandon journalism altogether; he is now a farmer.)
Mukai will remain in the US until January completing various experiments under her command. Then, Mr. Fukuda says, she will likely travel around Japan going from school to school, "giving the kids a scientific briefing of the results from the cucumber experiments."