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28-year-old surgeon to be the third Japanese woman to go to space

Astronaut candidates for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Ayu Yoneda (L), a surgeon at the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, and Makoto Suwa (on screen), a disaster prevention specialist at the World Bank
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

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    Japan’s space agency revealed their two newest recruits on Tuesday: a surgeon and a disaster prevention specialist. 

    Ayu Yoneda, the youngest candidate to be selected by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), will become the third Japanese woman to go to space after she completes a two-year training program. 

    The 28-year-old Japanese Red Cross Medical Center surgeon was chosen along with Makoto Suwa, 46, from a pool of 4,127 applicants, of which only 22.2% were women. 

    JAXA received four times the amount of applications last year after changing their application prerequisites, no longer requiring applicants to have obtained a university degree. 

    Suwa, a senior disaster prevention specialist for the World Bank, was chosen this year after a previous unsuccessful attempt to join the program more than a decade ago. He studied geosciences at Princeton University before going to Rwanda to teach through the Japanese International Cooperation Agency’s overseas volunteer program as well as the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization. 

    The new recruits learned of their acceptance by phone on Monday. 

    Suwa, who attended Tuesday’s news conference from the United States through a video call, said he has been so excited since learning he had been picked that he has not been able to sleep. 

    Yoneda, a graduate of the University of Tokyo’s School of Medicine, likewise expressed her excitement.

    “I was happy and surprised,” she told The Japan Times. “I also felt a sense of responsibility and calling, which was a very sobering experience, and eventually a sense of gratitude to the people who have supported me thus far.”

    Yoneda, who will be joining the current six-person Japanese crew of all men, continued: Of course there are factors such as age and gender, and I think that men and women are often viewed in different ways, but I myself would like to put forth my best first as an astronaut candidate rather than as one that is a young female.”

    Both Yoneda and Suwa gained interest in becoming astronauts at a young age. 

    As a child, Yoneda became interested in space after receiving a biographical manga from her father of the first Japanese woman in space, Chiaki Mukai. 

    “I learned about the job of an astronaut from that book and was moved by the moment where she was overcome by the view she saw of Earth from space,” she said. 

    Suwa was influenced to become an astronaut during his teenage years by Mamoru Mohri, the first Japanese astronaut to be part of an official Japanese space program. 

    Yoneda aims to study the impacts of space travel on human health.

    “We will see an era where many people will go to space. The duration and distance of those stays will become extended. As a physician, I believe I can do my part to learn about what happens to human bodies in space,” she said.

    After Yoneda and Suwa complete their two-year training period, their goal is to become officially certified astronauts. They will then be able to stay at the International Space Station before participating in the Artemis lunar exploration program to visit a new base on the moon.

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