For a young girl growing up in 1950s Japan, the expectations were clear: become a wife and a mother, raise a family, run a household—this was what was expected. What was not expected was for a young girl to grow up and become a surgeon or an astronaut. However, Chiaki Mukai was always one to defy expectations, and she did that, not by becoming a surgeon or an astronaut, but by becoming both a surgeon and an astronaut.

Many people are losing themselves. They don’t have something to believe in… We should believe in ourselves and be more self-confident.

Chiaki was born in Tatebayashi, Japan, on 6 May, 1952. She moved to Tokyo to further her education, and in 1977, she received her doctorate in medicine from Keio University. She could have stopped there, but she didn’t. Instead, she completed 2 residencies and, in 1983, she was named Chief Resident in Cardiovascular Surgery at Keio University Hospital. From there, she became board certified in cardiovascular surgery and was promoted to the rank of Assistant Professor in the Department of Cardiovascular Surgery at the university. In 1988, she also earned a second doctorate, this time in physiology.

As impressive as Chiaki’s accomplishments up to this point are, they were only the beginning. While she was working as a cardiovascular surgeon, Chiaki was approached by the National Space Development Agency of Japan. Recognising the opportunity to combine her passion for medicine and scientific research, Chiaki jumped at the opportunity to expand her horizons and partner with the National Space Development Agency on antigravity research. In 1994, she joined the crew of the Columbia as a payload specialist, becoming the first Japanese woman to fly into space.

Before men and women, we are human beings. That is common sense. If you want to do something, go for it.

She spent 15 days in space aboard the Columbia, during which time she orbited the earth 236 times. Their mission was designated as an International Microgravity Laboratory flight, and during the flight, they conducted 82 experiments, looking specifically at Space Life Science and Microgravity Science. The flight was also classified as an extended duration mission, so they were tasked with conducting experiments focused on the autonomic nervous system, bone and muscle metabolism, and the cardiovascular system.

In 1998, she returned to space as a payload specialist on a 9-day mission aboard the Discovery shuttle. This mission made her the first Japanese citizen, regardless of gender, to make a second trip to space. During the mission, she logged another 134 orbits of the earth and 6.1 million miles of travel, while she (and her fellow researchers) conducted experiments on everything from the Hubble Telescope Orbital Systems Test Platform to the impact of space travel on the aging process.

Chiaki Mukai

As illustrious as her career in space has been, Chiaki has also accomplished quite a bit with her feet planted firmly on the ground. She began working as a Research Instructor in the Department of Surgery at Baylor college of Medicine in Huston, Texas in 1992, and from 2004-2007, she served as a visiting professor at the International Space University. From there, she went on to serve as the Director of the Space Biomedical Research office, as a senior advisor to the JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) Executive Director, and as the Director of JAXA’s Center for Applied Space Science Research. She has also authored more than 60 published papers.

For her heroism, service, and contributions to the scientific and medical community Chiaki has received a number of accolades, including the ‘Outstanding Service Award’ from the National Space Development Agency of Japan and the ‘Outstanding Service Award’ from the Society of Japanese Women Scientists. She has also been honored with a ‘Special Congressional Recognition’ from the US Congress and the ‘Prime Minister’s Special Citation for Contributions to Gender Equality.’

References include Care2, Britannica, JSC Nasa and Bloomberg.

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.

Image by NASA

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