Behind the Scenes at ISU with Chiaki Mukai

By Drew Lacy, Communication ‘14

Sometimes, it’s the experiences that you least expect that are most memorable. The friend you met by accidentally wandering into the wrong dorm. The awesome restaurant you discovered after getting lost in a new area. The student organization you kind of joined for a University Experience grade and ended up dedicating hundreds of hours to.

Alright, well, maybe the last one is just me, but you get the point.

There are a lot of moments in life that we expect to be memorable, but sometimes it’s the surprises in between that really blow us away. Former astronaut and first Japanese woman in space, Chiaki Mukai, had one of these moments after returning from space for the first time in 1994.

Chiaki Mukai was one of several iconic explorers in space that lectured at the International Space University’s Space Studies Program (ISU SSP), held at Florida Tech this year. Before she became an astronaut, Chiaki was a cardiovascular surgeon, an expertise that led to her being selected as a part of the space program.

So, what about returning from space could possibly prove so unexpectedly memorable for someone who spent years training to be an astronaut, and years before that as a surgeon?

I was lucky enough to have had an opportunity to interview Chiaki while she was on campus this summer and found out something surprising:

So, what was her most memorable experience? It was something we deal with every day: gravity. As someone who has obviously never been to space, I expected her to say it was the remarkable views of the Earth from space or the feeling of being weightless for the first time, when it was quite the opposite.

As she explained in the interview, she’d seen pictures of the Earth from space, and had experienced the feeling of weightlessness in simulated environments, but nothing could prepare her for the feeling of re-entering an atmosphere where gravity rules.

I found myself thrilled by her answer, in probably the nerdiest way possible. After the interview, I couldn’t help but ask her about how it felt returning to gravity. She told me that in her first hours after returning to Earth, she found herself picking things up – pencils, books, anything with some weight to it – and dropping them from a few feet up, amazed by how they seemed to be drawn to the ground like a magnet. Even her arms felt bizarrely heavy, constantly dragged toward the ground as if for the first time.

It’s kind of fascinating how we so easily take gravity for granted, having grown up in a world where it’s just “always been there,” and that only a few days without it can completely erase that. It reminded me that maybe we could take a minute every now and then to appreciate the little things that have just “always been there,” whether you’re sitting in physics class studying gravity or just walking around campus and experiencing the wonder of not suddenly floating away if you take too bouncy a step.

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