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The Blue Marble and astronaut dreams

Interview with the astronaut candidate, SUWA Makoto

April 1, 2024

Astronaut candidates Makoto Suwa and Ayu Yoneda at the press conference on July 3, 2023 Credit: JAXA

Meeting the captain of Apollo 17 at age 11

“When I was in middle and high school, I always said that I wanted to become an astronaut, so my friends from that time were happy for me. After college, however, I rarely expressed openly that I wanted to become an astronaut. Once I got to my 30s and 40s, I felt awkward saying, "To be honest, I want to become an astronaut." Moreover, I had no confidence in myself at all.”

Forty-six-year-old Makoto Suwa, the oldest astronaut candidate ever selected by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), smiles with a blush.

Suwa graduated from the University of Tokyo, majoring in geoscience.*

“Many Japanese astronauts come from an engineering or medical background. I am only the second to major in basic science after Mamoru Mohri.”

After getting his undergraduate degree, Suwa continued his studies in the US and later worked for international organizations such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the World Bank. All the while, he did not give up on the dream of becoming an astronaut and kept it close to his heart. Thus, he applied for the previous astronaut candidate selection test announced in 2008.

“If anything, my confidence in 2008 was rather unfounded (laughs). This time around, however, I really had no confidence at all. That is why I was surprised when I received the notification that I had passed the test. I truly was. Then I got so excited that I could barely sleep that day.”

Born in Tokyo and raised in Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, Suwa loved soccer and baseball, catching stag and rhinoceros beetles in the nearby woods and forests, and falling asleep at night listening to the choir of frogs in the rice paddies. Then, at the age of eleven in the fifth grade, his dream of becoming an astronaut formed when he met none other than Eugene Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission, an astronaut who had stood on the surface of the Moon.

“I was selected as a winner for a children's science magazine essay contest and taken on a trip with the others to visit NASA-related facilities in the United States, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, we met Eugene Cernan, who was still alive at the time, and he told us many stories. I think that was the moment I first became aware of becoming an astronaut as a possible career option.”

For Suwa, being chosen as an astronaut candidate is a dream 35 years in the making.

*Currently, the Earth and Planetary Environmental Science program

A grandfather's influence: interest in geoscience and international development

Suwa had loved science even before wanting to become an astronaut. This, he says, may have been thanks to his father being a researcher and being surrounded by many research institutes in his hometown of Tsukuba. His interest in the big picture history of Earth and the solar system was sparked by the NHK (TN: a Japanese public broadcaster) program "The Miracle Planet" he saw on TV when he was a boy, which later motivated him to major in geoscience for his undergraduate degree.

“I was fascinated by the scale of space and time in the visualizations of how Earth and the solar system were formed. I was also deeply moved by how even an ordinary piece of rock can tell the story of Earth's ancient history.”

His grandfather, who taught at a university in Malaysia, had a great impact on him as well.

“My grandfather worked for the Japan Meteorological Agency after the war and later taught atmospheric science and atmospheric environmental management at a university in Malaysia. He told me many stories whenever he was back in Japan for his yearly visits, until his passing around the time I was a senior in college. I think my later involvement in work at the intersection of global environmental issues and developing countries was in big part thanks to his influence.”

With an interest in international development, which his grandfather was involved in, a fascination with the dazzling history of Earth, and the dream of becoming an astronaut, as a first step, Suwa entered the Faculty of Science at the University of Tokyo to become a scientist.

“I was steadfast about learning geoscience. I wanted to go to various places and see various things, to go out in the field and create stories from there. So, I majored in geoscience because it seemed to involve a lot of fieldwork. Another reason was that of the 12 astronauts who landed on the Moon between the Apollo 11 and 17 missions, 11 had a military background, and only one was a scientist. That one scientist was a member of the Apollo 17 crew, a geologist called Harrison Schmitt. I had that in the back of my mind, thinking that entering the field was connected to my dream of becoming an astronaut. Anyway, whenever I came to a fork in the road in my career, I always tried to keep my dream of going to space alive.”

As one would expect, Suwa’s fondest memories of his undergraduate studies are related to fieldwork.

“The main class in my junior year was a one-week project in a UTokyo-affiliated forest on Mt. Kiyosumi in Chiba Prefecture. We had to plot the starta along a stream full of leeches where we all got bitten. That trip was definitely the most memorable.”

Studying in the US and fieldwork in Antarctica

After graduating from the Faculty of Science at the University of Tokyo, Suwa enrolled in a master’s program in environmental management at Duke University in the United States.

“My grandfather who lived in Malaysia had always told me that I should study abroad as soon as possible. I had a vague admiration for the United States and not really knowing why, but I thought it would be cool to study there, such shallow reasons might have played a role, too (laughs). Ultimately, I wanted to work in an international environment, so I wanted to improve my English as well.”

At the beginning of his studies, he still had difficulties with the language.

“In American classes, participation is evaluated based on how much you speak up during class, so I was under a lot of pressure to do so. At first, I always hoped I would not get pointed at during class, but eventually, I had to tackle the challenge. I could not keep up, and found it difficult to contribute in the middle of discussions. So, I had to use a trick or two, like participating in the beginning of the class as much as possible (laughs).”

After receiving his master's degree, Suwa felt that to further his education, he needed to put himself in a situation where he would have no choice but to work hard and not slack off. So, he entered a doctoral program at Princeton University to study climate science. At the orientation, he was told he needed to be ready for what was about to come and that doctoral students, on average, had to have two counseling sessions before completing the program. With his worries arising, he thought, “I’d come to a terrific place.”

“Looking back on it now, I realize it was a very stimulating environment. Nobel laureate Syukuro Manabe and a professor who was a member of the group that discovered plate tectonics were both there. I am glad I went to Princeton.”

While at Princeton, Suwa also went to Antarctica as a part of a research program in which scientists gathered ice cores (cylinders of ice drilled from ice sheets) to reconstruct ancient climate change events. He spent a little over two months there.

“Everything is covered in snow all the way to the horizon, and the flakes whirl up to the sky whenever the wind blows, creating a white mist. It was an unadorned landscape with only two colors, white and blue, as far as the eye could see, accompanied by the Sun. It was beautiful and majestic, and I was deeply moved that such a place existed on Earth.”

From "fieldwork" in Africa to "fieldwork" at international organizations

After completing his doctoral studies, Suwa moved to Rwanda in Africa as Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers member of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

“I studied geoscience in graduate school because I thought it might lead to work in international development. When I enrolled in college in 1995, the issue of climate change had already begun to be taken seriously, and COP3 was held in Kyoto in 1997. Since that time, I had the feeling that environmental issues and climate change would become important for international development in the future. After finishing my doctoral program, I thought about how to apply my knowledge to international development. However, I did not know what to do because there was no one around me who could serve as a role model. I felt that, in any case, being involved in fieldwork would be useful. Education is crucial to every area of expertise, so I decided to go to Africa for two years and get involved in education.”

In Rwanda, Suwa taught science and mathematics at middle and high schools in the morning and at a university science department in the afternoon. While he empathized with the young people who were earnest and passionate about building a better future, he also got a glimpse of the state of politics in developing countries where implementing commonplace processes of data-based policy-making could not be taken for granted. Moreover, urbanization-induced air pollution was a growing problem in Africa. There, Suwa saw firsthand that there were many opportunities to contribute for those who had studied geoscience and environmental science.

“I experienced both the fun of achievement and the frustration of failure of what could be accomplished by fieldwork. When I thought about what to do next, I realized that change had to start from the national policy level.

However, whether it is an international organization or an aid organization such as JICA, there are limits to what outsiders can do. Nevertheless, I decided to work for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized organization close to my field of geoscience so that I could see and learn how an international organization operated.”

At the World Meteorological Organization, Suwa worked for two years at the headquarters in Geneva and for a year and a half in Kenya. His job was to improve meteorological and hydrological services in developing countries at organizations equivalent to Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and Meteorological Agency. Delivering accurate weather information in a timely manner to large numbers of people is of great help to many socio-economic sectors such as agriculture, health, transportation, and disaster risk management in developing countries.

Later, Suwa heard that the World Bank, which had just begun its active involvement in climate issues, was recruiting Japanese nationals. He applied for a position and was hired in 2014. He was assigned to projects that aim to strengthen early warning systems as well as meteorological and hydrological services in developing countries.

He continued his work for disaster risk management and water resources management for those who needed them the most until February 28, 2023, the day of the astronaut candidacy announcement.

The Moon as a step to Mars exploration

As an astronaut, the place where Suwa would most like to go is needless to say, the Moon.

“I chose to study geoscience in part because going to the Moon was in the back of my mind all along. Of course, I would like to go to Mars, too. I am fascinated by comparative planetary studies, and many people are curious to learn when and how Mars and Earth’s climate diverged. Understanding Mars helps understand Earth as well. As a geoscientist, I think it would be fun if we could take the Moon as a step toward Mars exploration.”

Suwa adds, "It is crucial to find something you are passionate about, something you love, because that allows you to do your best.” He continues.

“In this sense, I think the University of Tokyo has a very conducive system because students get to experience many things through the two-year liberal arts curriculum. Moreover, UTokyo has accomplished professors in all kinds of fields and there are many impressive students among one’s classmates and seniors, creating a stimulating environment. There are many opportunities to satisfy one’s academic curiosity, and one has to use them proactively. There are so many new possibilities for young people in all sorts of fields nowadays. I wish them the best of luck.”

The “something” Suwa is passionate about happens to be encapsulated by one very famous photograph, the Blue Marble. It is the stunning image of Earth floating in the blackness of space, taken by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, about 45,000 km away from the planet.

“Africa is right in the middle of the picture, Antarctica at the bottom. Moreover, that picture was taken from the spacecraft in which Eugene Cernan, who inspired my dream of becoming an astronaut, was commanding. I always wonder how this one picture could encompass so many aspects of my life.”

Suwa explains that the Blue Marble, the photograph that showed both the uniqueness and the fragility of Earth, was a great asset to the Apollo program. He also believes that the striking visuality of the irreplaceable planet Earth as a blue marble has had a profound impact on the human psyche and the subsequent attention on environmental issues.

Perhaps a few years from now Suwa will get to see the blue marble with his own eyes.

“I suppose I would be deeply moved if I got to see it. I wonder how I would feel.”

Suwa says with his eyes looking into the distance.

Date of interview: June 2023
Interview/Text: Minoru Ota
​Photography: Junichi Kaizuka

SUWA Makoto
Astronaut Candidate, Astronaut Group, Astronaut Operations and Technology Unit, Human Spaceflight Technology Directorate, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
Born in Tokyo in 1977 and raised in Tsukuba City, Ibaraki Prefecture. BSc in geoscience at the Faculty of Science, University of Tokyo in 1999. MSc in environmental management from Duke University in 2001. PhD in geosciences from Princeton University in 2007. Dispatched to Rwanda as a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2008. Joined the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 2010. Joined the World Bank in 2014. Joined the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency as an astronaut candidate in July 2023.


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