A ‘gaijin’ guide to JAXA

TU Delft MSc students Mirjam Boere and Rody Oldenhuis recently completed their internships at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Quite a feat in its own right, as very few ‘gaijan’, or foreigners, are permitted to work at this prestigious but secretive space agency.

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis for mankind’s desire to understand,” said US astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. It is this, our perpetual quest for knowledge and discovery, which encourages the fascinating work being done by eight space agencies around the world, of which one of the most important is Jaxa (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), which is part of the consortium building the International Space Station and has also launched a probe to land on an asteroid. These are the kind of engineering marvels that make Jaxa unique in the space exploration field.
Mirjam Boere and Rody Oldenhuis, both MSc students in space engineering at TU Delft’s Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, recently satisfied their own personal desires for knowledge and discovery during internships at Jaxa.

What made you decide to pursue internships at Jaxa?
Mirjam: “Jaxa had grasped my interest because it’s challenging the limits of science and technology in space engineering. Next to Jaxa, only Nasa and Esa can compete in the space industry. Of these three agencies, Jaxa was my first choice, because I also wanted to learn more about Japanese culture, which I had always believed to be one of the most spectacular cultures of the world.”
Rody: “Interplanetary space missions are my true passion, of which one of the more important aspects is probably the need for cooperation between the different space-faring nations. If your goals are to design missions like the space station, it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of all the parties involved. However, many of the guest lectures I followed at TU Delft were given by people from Esa, and only once by someone who had worked with the Russian Roskosmos. Many of the examples used in the more theoretical lectures came from Esa and/or NASA missions, but I never came across someone from Jaxa. So I decided to use my internship as a good excuse to learn what Jaxa is all about.”

At Jaxa, did you feel like you were working in an international environment?
Mirjam: “Jaxa works together with Esa on a number of missions, like the BepiColombo and Marco Polo missions. However, Japan is a very closed society, and this can also be seen in Jaxa, since very few foreigners are allowed to work there for security reasons.”
Rody: “Not as much as I had expected. I did experience the usual ‘culture shock’ that seems to haunt anyone on their first visit to Japan, but it was a very enjoyable experience. But I wouldn’t call Isas/Jaxa an international agency per se. A ‘gaijin’, or foreigner’s, face on the work floor was quite rare. There were some post-docs and other interns, but you could count them all on one hand.” 

Were there any notable differences between Jaxa and Esa? Mirjam: “The biggest difference is that at Jaxa, everybody has flexible working hours. Everybody shows up at work whenever they feel like it. However, because everybody is so passionate about their jobs, and because the Japanese are such perfectionists, they work hard to perform well – sometimes even sleeping at the company! Also, because Jaxa is a company working only for Japan, it’s more efficient than Esa, where a number of countries must agree before they can make decisions.”

What was level of English like at Jaxa? Mirjam: “English is a very hard language for Japanese people. However, I could communicate very well to my colleagues in English.”
Rody: “The average level of English is surprisingly poor. Although some people spoke quite a bit of understandable English – mostly the older professionals – many others completely relied on their electronic dictionaries. You had to be very patient to have a normal conversation with many of the young people. It was funny to see how lost some of them were without their dictionaries. I’ll never forget someone trying to explain ‘fermentation’ to me using charades.”

Which department did you work in at JAXA, and what did you work on?Mirjam: “I worked at the Jaxa Space Exploration Center (JSPEC), at the Sagamihara Campus, located very close to Tokyo. My project was to develop an interplanetary trajectory design tool for low-thrust asteroid missions. I developed the tool in Matlab, and the program is now being used as a preliminary study for asteroid sample and return missions.”
Rody: “I worked in the Orbit Determination Group, a group primarily involved with all things related to orbit determination. Probably, their most interesting responsibility is determining and predicting the position of the Hayabusa spacecraft, the first spacecraft to ever land on an asteroid. The Hayabusa craft is due to return to Earth in 2010, with samples of the asteroid onboard. The Orbit Determination Group is also involved with the design and planning of this return phase.”

What are your overall impressions of Japan?Mirjam: “Japan is a great country! It was lovely to see a culture that is influenced by both the East and West – mostly American culture. It’s funny to see a country that is full of beautiful ancient temples, but also has an equal number of McDonalds and Starbucks. I was also very impressed by the extremely efficient train system and the high-tech gadgets.”

And of the Japanese people? Mirjam: “In general, they’re extremely nice and polite people, a bit shy and extremely superstitious. Sometimes it was hard to understand the social rules, because they have so many. However, I think that it’s very difficult for foreigners to truly integrate in their culture.”
Rody: “I noticed they had a very different body language for expressing emotions, which is probably part of the cause for the culture shock. Also, they speak very indirectly and carefully, and become very uncomfortable when you speak your mind. Most Japanese people are quite easily impressed, and become very enthusiastic when they see something new that they like.”

How should other interested students go about applying to Jaxa for internships and getting sponsorship?Mirjam: “Jaxa is very open to foreign students. Just grab the phone and start arranging!”
Rody: “Getting sponsorship can be a problem. There are some funds at TU Delft that are given for this kind of internship, like FIS and Van der Maasfonds, but they’re quite minimal. Basically, most scholarships did not apply to my particular situation, and I had to finance practically everything myself.”

Als studentenverenigingen hun kmt van twee weken willen inkorten tot een week, wil collegelid Paul Rullmann daar ook wel over praten. Hij wacht nog op een reactie van studentenverenigingen.

Door de overlap van de kmt met de eerste collegeweek zitten studenten volgens het college ‘deels slapend en niet fit’ in de collegezalen. Studentenraadsfractie Oras zegt daar meer over te willen weten. “Als het incidenteel is, denk ik: ja, dat gebeurt het hele jaar door wel eens als je een feestje hebt gehad en een langdradig college hebt”, zegt Joost Willems van Oras.

Het is volgens collegelid Rullmann wel degelijk een serieus probleem dat grote verenigingen studenten in de eerste collegeweek ‘behoorlijk afmatten’. “Slapende studenten zijn meer dan een incident, ik heb er mooie foto’s van.”

De studentenraadsfracties Oras en Het Principe vinden het vervroegen van de Owee zeker geen optie. “Daar raak je alle studenten mee”, zegt fractievoorzitter Jeroen van Eldert van Het Principe. “Er zullen minder eerstejaars meedoen aan de Owee. Ook zullen minder ouderejaars bereid zijn om dan al terug te komen naar Delft. De colleges beginnen immers pas twee weken later.”

Oras meldt bovendien dat de Owee dan zal samenvallen met evenementen als de Sneekweek en Lowlands. Van Eldert van Het Principe vindt het ‘geen probleem’ als de kmt wordt ingekort, al hoeft de soep niet zo heet gegeten te worden. “Het probleem zit maar bij twee verenigingen, Virgiel en het corps. Zij zijn de enige die vermoeiende nachtprogramma’s hebben. Als ze dat aanpassen, is het ook goed.”

Drie jaar geleden vroeg het college grote verenigingen de tweede week van de kmt educatiever te maken met aandacht voor studievaardigheden. “Ik waardeer de inspanningen daartoe, maar moet concluderen dat het niet werkt”, aldus Rullmann.

Editor Redactie

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