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Negligence and misconduct in experiments led by Japanese astronaut

In November, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced the results of an investigation that identified misconduct in a study on space medicine. Groups of individuals were monitored while working in an enclosed space for two weeks to assess their stress levels and mental well-being in an environment designed to mimic the confinement of space travel. The experiment was repeated various times between 2016 and 2017, but no scientific results have been published to date.

The investigation concluded that data were fabricated for five volunteer interviews that were never actually carried out. The discovery was made by an independent evaluator who found no records of the conversations. There were also signs that data were manipulated and the researchers conducting the study did not obtain informed consent from all participants (through which they are informed of their rights in the event of mental or physical harm arising from the research, as well as the use of their data). “Sloppy handling of data and inadequate management undermined the scientific value of the research as a whole,” said JAXA vice president Hiroshi Sasaki, who heads the institution’s Human Spaceflight Technology Directorate, at a press conference on the conclusions of the investigation.

The case became a national scandal because the experiments were supervised by Satoshi Furukawa, 58, a famous Japanese astronaut who spent 165 days aboard the International Space Station (ISI) between June and November 2011. There is no evidence that he had any direct role in the misconduct, but according to Sasaki, as the person in charge of coordinating the research and ensuring its integrity, he should be subject to disciplinary measures.

Any punishment, however, is not expected to affect Furukawa’s upcoming trip to the ISS in 2023, for which he is currently preparing. JAXA is entitled to 13% of the ISS’s crew and research time and has been increasingly collaborating with NASA on manned spaceflight. Japan is responsible for the Kibo Laboratory, installed on the ISS in 2008 and run from the Tsukuba Space Center, north of Tokyo, where research is conducted in areas such as medicine, biology, Earth observation, materials, biotechnology, and communications.