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'Cuteness in Space' as JAXA Carries Out the Serious Business of Its H3 Launch

No helicopters, no military uniforms, no macho mood, and a staff canteen that serves lunch to everyone who is hungry ー only at the Japanese space agency.



A screen at JAXA's Tanegashima Space Station shows the launch path of the H3 rocket at 6:58 minutes into the flight. (©JAPAN Forward by Agnes Tandler)

(Tanegashima) The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has an urgent message for its visitors. "Please avoid traffic accidents." Not that there is much traffic on Tanegashima Island off the southern tip of Kyushu. This is the island that the Japanese space agency uses as a launch pad for its space missions. 

It's a quiet place where petrol station workers wave at the local bus driver passing by. Despite all this, JAXA has made out two traffic accident hot spots – one on a stretch of country road with two road bumps and another around the village school. "Accidents threaten the trust and support of the local population that we have worked to establish over the years," JAXA explains endearingly. 

It is hard not to vouch for JAXA - the friendliest of all space agencies, at least inside our own solar system.  

A sign points the way to the space center.
Mascot Hoshinosuke-kun also announces the local bus stop.

While its ambitions aim high, Japan's space agency is pretty much down to earth. It is accessible, earnest, hard-working, and egalitarian in nature. Unlike other space agencies, its DNA is purely civilian. 

There are no military uniforms, no top brass zooming around the place in army helicopters, and no macho attitude of any sort. It is just scientists, engineers, and nerds wanting to make the world a better place. 

Seaweed soup, oolong tea and sweet and sour space food are for sale in the museum shop.

Featuring Friendliness

Take, for example, JAXA's space museum: there is no patriotic undertone, no message appealing to national unity. On the whiteboard at the entrance where visitors can leave comments school children have written "JAXA fight" to show their support for the agency. 

A display exhibits what kind of food Japanese astronauts take into space. It's all common Japanese fare adapted and packed for space travel: miso soup, seaweed snacks, and freeze-dried onigiri rice balls. The museum shop sells some of the space food for visitors to take home, but the ice creams inspired by the planetary systems have a lot more fans.  

'Rocket lunch' from the JAXA staff cafeteria.

At JAXA's staff cafeteria, everyone who is hungry can line up for food. The most popular dish on the menu is the "rocket lunch," a curry with rice formed like a rocket with little stars sprinkled on top. It sells out quickly. 

Meanwhile, the panoramic view from the cafeteria of the ocean with its stunning rock formations gives a reason to pause. Guests are treated to free water and green tea. Sitting at the white tables are JAXA employees in work uniforms, a visiting researcher from abroad, a family with three small kids, a lonely traveler, and two chatty ladies, all eating lunch. The canteen ladies keep order by bossing everyone around in a cheerful, but determined way. 

Engineers and other Tanegashima Space Center staff visit the busy local shrine.

Laid Back Tanegashima

At Tanegashima the public mingles with JAXA's workers, engineers, and scientists. It's hard to imagine such a casual scene at Cape Canaveral, where NASA operates its spacecraft launches, or at the European launch pad at Kourou in the South American jungle. Tanegashima is a relaxed, laid-back place and so is the space center. 

Tucked away into a hillside close to the entrance of the space center is a tiny Shinto shrine with a white gate. Fishing boats anchor next to the Takezaki Observatory. That's where the press works during rocket launches. 

Not only a view of the launch pad, but an explanation, too.

When rockets are launched, security measures are kept simple and minimal. The area within a 3-kilometer radius of the launch pad is closed to the public. However, everyone can watch the lift-off of the rocket from any spot outside these prohibited areas. Viewing locations with the best vantage points are marked. One is Rocket Hill Observatory, from where spectators can even hear the countdown. 

H3 rocket No 2 launch on February 17. (© Sankei by Kan Emori)
Hoshinosuke-kun welcomes visitors.

Cuteness in Space

And while nowadays space agencies have mascots that are brought inside the control room on launch day, JAXA has had its cuddly Hoshinosuke-kun since 1994. It was designed by a third-grade middle schooler and its clasped hands symbolize peaceful exploration in space. Hoshinosuke-kun strives to be meaningful for mankind by symbolizing harmony between humanity, planet Earth, and everything that lies beyond. 

There is cuteness in space – at least on Tanegashima.   

Agnes Tandler with JAXA Helmet, reporting from Tanegashima.


Author: Agnes Tandler (From Tanegashima)
Photos, except where noted, (© JAPAN Forward by Agnes Tandler)

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