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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Exploring wonder and mystery through space science

Japanese astronauts talk space education in New Zealand.

Seven representatives from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), including one astronaut, visited Auckland last week to join the SpaceUp unconference – a collaborative, dynamic weekend for all things astronomical.

Along with the others, Akihiko Hoshide, Professor Takashi Kubota, and Space Education Centre director, Mr Eijiro Hirohama, spoke at the event and New Zealand Science Teacher was lucky enough to chat with them, too.

Space Education in the Asia-Pacific region

Mr Hirohama is the director of the Space Education Centre at JAXA. He says SpaceUp is a brilliant place to be inspired about space science education and he’s pleased to come and join in with a New Zealand education event.

The mission of the Japanese Space Education Centre is to share resources with science teachers, in order to inspire and encourage young people to explore what he calls ‘the wonders and mysteries of our solar system.’

But why is it important that space is included in science education?

It’s not so much about teaching space science, he explains, but more about bringing it into the classroom, for students to take on themselves. Although the educational resources are developed by JAXA, they are able to be used by science educators in other countries ,too, especially where the science curriculum is flexible.

He highlights the ‘space seeds’ programme (read about this on NZST) wherein JAXA astronauts grew azuki bean plants simultaneously with school students as an interesting way to teach the process of automorphogenesis and engage students with the International Space Station.

“It is our hope that teachers can use our images, diagrams, and other information on the website in their teaching. We are happy to share the rich resources we have to inspire young people to take an interest in astronomy,” he says.

Getting inspired by the story of the Hayabusa mission

Above: A computer rendering of Hayabusa above Itokawa's surface. Image: Wikipedia

Professor Takashi Kubota works in navigational research at JAXA, and in the early 2000s, was instrumental in leading the renowned Hayabusa mission. A scientific and engineering marvel, Hayabusa was deeply influential in global space exploration and even inspired a Lego kit in its image, as well as a film in 2012.

The unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa travelled two billion kilometres in space to reach the asteroid ‘Itokawa’ in order to collect sample material from it. These samples enabled detailed study of the asteroid’s features (shape, spin, density, etc.) than had previously been possible. Hayabusa launched on May 9, 2003. It arrived at Itokawa on September 12, 2005, and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on June 30, 2006, landing in a fireball in the South Australian outback.

Professor Kubota’s official role in the mission was ‘head of guidance and control’ and he says he’s still passionate about searching for more in space.

“Now I work as an engineer, developing the robotic technology for further space explorations,” he says. “But I want to continue working to explore the mysteries of the solar system.”

He says children are naturally interested in the mystery and wonder inherent in space science.

“I want to encourage younger people to see space as an exciting and mysterious world to discover,” he says.

“For example, take the idea that there is no gravity in space: this is an interesting but strange phenomena. By learning about space, we can understand Earth better.

We have discovered a lot of information about our universe already. But there are still many questions and mysteries that need to be solved.”

Left: Akihiko Hoshide

Walking in space

Akihiko Hoshide is an engineer and astronaut. He’s the third Japanese astronaut to walk in space, and he says he is happy to be able to share his knowledge with educators.

“This is actually the first time since I got back from space two years ago, and I hope to do a lot more of this travelling, talking, and teaching work. It’s important to me.”

His career path was a long one. He received an International Baccalaureate diploma from the United World College of South East Asia in 1987, then graduated from university with a Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, and a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering. Later, he joined the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) as an engineer and launcher. 

For those interested in what it takes to work as an astronaut, Akihiko says it’s a long and challenging process.

“I applied to be an astronaut and was accepted in 1999 – on my third try. It's incredibly difficult to get to that stage. They look at your resume; you go through multiple interviews and very thorough medical examinations. You are monitored in an isolation chamber then in another chamber with a group of other aspiring astronauts. You’re watched very carefully to see how you work in this environment, and how you cooperate within a group.

“So, if you want to be an astronaut, it's very important that you are completely healthy in body and mind, and you can work together with others. You also need to have a good understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses and those of the people in your team.”

The famous space selfie

Above: Hoshide taking a space selfie during extravehicular activity (EVA) on September 5, 2012, with the Sun behind him.

In late 2012, Akihiko became famous for his ‘space selfie’ which did the social media rounds and was named among the ‘world’s best selfies in 2012.’

He laughs at the mention of this. “When I was between exercises in space, a colleague recommended I try to get a picture of myself, in addition to the mainly technical pictures I was taking while I was there. I remember I had about thirty seconds to try and get the shot. I had no idea that it would also capture the reflection of the Sun and the space equipment behind me. It was truly a coincidence that it happened like that."

A passion for sharing knowledge

Like his colleagues, Akihiko is also passionate about astronomy in science education. “I think the first step is to engage young people with what’s happening in space science. Science fiction movies inspired me when I was young, and they captured my imagination. So we need to make sure we really light the spark for young people so they want to learn more.”

The second step, he says, is to provide good educational opportunities for learning about space science. “People like us who work at JAXA are in a position where we can provide the technical knowledge and skills. Our goal is to get people doing more science, being more curious.”

He believes that while most students will not go on to join the International Space Station, it doesn’t matter because what’s important is that they have meaningful educational experiences.

“NASA has an education programme, too, and they do a lot of great research. We have the unique ability and we like to share that with everyone else, especially educators in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s just about sharing our love for, and knowledge of, space science.”

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