How Japan Selects Astronauts

I’ve been reading an interesting book called Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. It’s about the quirky side of space exploration–things like what’s involved in getting an American flag to wave on the windless moon, having sex in space, and why urine illuminated by the sun is one of the most beautiful sights you can see in space.

Anyway, it actually starts out with the selection process that Japanese astronauts go through, and some of the methods they use are unique to say the least. First, there’s the paper-crane test. During a week-long continuous observation session, candidates have to fold a thousand origami cranes. These cranes are then analyzed by a team of psychologists to see how the person deals with boring, repetitive tasks and time constraints. The psychologists check whether the folds get less precise at the end of the task, and see how they compare with the first ones.

Like a lot of things in Japan, there’s an explanation for why it’s done, but no other countries have anything similar to it, and you’re left wondering if there wouldn’t be a test that’s more closely related to actual space missions.

The book also compares Japan’s test for how astronauts with unexpected situations. The Canadian Space Agency asks candidates to practice escaping from burning space capsules and sinking helicopters, and jump into wave-filled pools from great heights. The author, Mary Roach says, “…I asked Tachibana whether he was panning to pull any surprises on his candidates, to see how they cope under the stress of a sudden emergency. He told me he had given thought to disabling the isolation chamber toilet.” Another test involved delaying lunch by one hour.

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