When my Japanese colleagues discover that I’m a paper-plane enthusiast, they think the same thing that you are probably thinking right now: what’s up with this guy? In Japan, just like overseas, "kami hikoki" (making paper planes) is seen as a child’s hobby, not a suitable activity for adults. This is true even though the paper-folding craft of origami enjoys a long and celebrated history in our culture.
So when I learned last month that Japan’s space agency, JAXA, had accepted my proposal to launch a paper airplane from outer space, I was hopeful that my hobby would finally gain a kind of legitimacy. If it’s proven that a paper plane can reenter the Earth’s atmosphere — and, hopefully, glide gracefully to Earth — the scientific community could gain valuable data about aerodynamics. The knowledge may even lead to improvements in the design of future spacecraft, as it would prove that ultralight materials can withstand the rigors of the upper atmosphere.
But to be honest, this project has a significance beyond any scientific knowledge that might be gained. And to explain why, I need to go back 30 years to describe how I fell in love with paper airplanes in the first place.
My interest in paper planes has a curious beginning: a rock climbing accident when I was a student that injured my spine and required two years of convalescence. While laid up in a hospital with precious little to occupy my time, I started making paper airplanes and throwing them out the window. My designs were pretty basic, so most of the craft landed in the flowerbed directly beneath my room. When the hospital staff scolded me for creating such a mess in their garden, I resolved to make the planes fly farther.
After lots of experimentation, I managed to increase the airworthiness of the craft — so much so that I began to wonder whether it would somehow be possible to launch one of my planes from space. I became preoccupied with new folding techniques that would make planes fly farther, and I eventually managed to come up with some fairly slick designs. One idea I hit on was for a triangular craft that resembled the U.S. space shuttle — four years before NASA unveiled their version.
Eventually, my efforts started to gain recognition. Thanks to my day job as president of a Hiroshima-based precision casting and molding company, I was able to propose the idea of a 26-meter-tall tower to the local city council, and the project was completed successfully. The lobby of this tower serves as a paper airplane showcase, and the top floor is used as a launching pad by hobbyists from all over the country. In fact, a 2.05-meter version of my space shuttle, constructed of the same material as paper sake containers, made a highly publicized flight from there a few years ago. Another craft, called the Sky King, employs a construction technique that has come to be known as the Toda Fold.
About 15 years ago, my dreams of a space flight inched closer to reality when Shinji Suzuki, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Tokyo University, came up with an idea of his own space launch. After thorough investigation, he confirmed the possibility of a paper airplane reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, even though he was unable to verify his findings. Working together, Suzuki and I helped build a plane that, during a hypersonic wind tunnel test at Todai in January, survived temperatures of 230º C and speeds of Mach 7. Using nothing but specially treated paper, the 30-cm, 25-gram craft should be able to withstand the hazards of reentry.
But as I said, the technological benefits that result from this project are secondary to my real goal: to reawaken a sense of wonder in the world around us, especially among children.
Recently, I’ve noticed that Japanese kids seem to be losing their interest in science and their curiosity about the natural world. This, I believe, has less to do with their schooling than what they do in their leisure time. When I was a child, activities like making paper airplanes and playing with string-and-ball kendama toys challenged our coordination and allowed us to spend meaningful time with our parents and grandparents. The same can’t be said of video games and the internet, today’s favorite leisure activities.
I know that no amount of words can change the thinking of kids today. That’s why I hope that when children see how a single piece of folded paper can fly in space, it will inspire them to make things with their hands and to explore, with the help of their family, how the natural world works.
Of course, I am thrilled that my long-hoped-for project is coming to fruition. But that’s nothing compared to the delight that millions of children will feel as their own paper planes — and their own dreams — take flight. Takuo Toda is the president of Castem and the chairman of the Japan Origami Airplane Association. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today