Prince William's Astronaut Ally Praises His Earthshot Prize for Protecting Our 'Beautiful but Fragile' Planet

Japanese astronaut and engineer Naoko Yamazaki is on Prince William's Earthshot Prize Council alongside Sir David Attenborough and Cate Blanchett

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge attends the Earthshot Prize 2021 at Alexandra Palace on October 17, 2021 in London, England.
Prince William at the Earthshot Prize ceremony. Photo: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty

When Naoko Yamazaki looked down from her position in the international space station in 2010, she had something of an epiphany.

"The Earth is shining blue in the vastness of darkness. It is very beautiful, but at the same time, I realized it's fragile as well," Yamazaki, 50, tells PEOPLE of her astonishing experience. "The layer where the atmosphere is so thin, it's paper thin."

Yamazaki proudly wore a shirt commemorating her space station mission during a Zoom call from Japan to explain her "180 degree" change in perspective. Since that a-ha moment, she has dedicated to educating the next generation and protecting the environment.

Astronaut Naoko Yamazaki
Naoko Yamazaki. Jun Sato/WireImage

So when Prince William's Royal Foundation asked her to be among his Earthshot Prize Council, helping choose the contenders for the five Earthshot Prizes, she jumped at the opportunity to help.

The first prizes rewarding innovative ideas with financial and practical support were given out on Sunday at a star-studded inaugural awards event attended by William and Kate Middleton, both 39.

The prize has an "ambitious goal and it unites millions of people and resources together to save our planet," says Yamazaki. "And I'm so pleased to be a part of it."

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The prince's influence and the efforts of his Foundation have seen hundreds of experts uniting to assess and validate the contenders and their ideas, says Yamazaki.

"We have a global networking of more than 200 global partners of specialists — that kinds of networking is very valuable," she tells PEOPLE. "So I really appreciate Prince William's leadership."

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge attend the Earthshot Prize 2021 at Alexandra Palace on October 17, 2021 in London, England.
Prince William and Kate Middleton at the 2021 Earthshot Prize Awards. Joe Maher/Getty

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Naturally, an astronaut like Yamazaki holds a special place in her heart for William's earliest Earthshot inspiration: U.S. President John F. Kennedy's historically bold Moonshot initiative from the 1960s, which charged American scientist to find a way to send a man to space in record time. "I have been so impressed with Prince William getting an inspiration from space exploration," she says.

But William himself has recently criticized on billionaires taking space travel for tourism's sake, telling the BBC last week, "We need some of the world's greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live."

His astronaut colleague says that the engineering and science of the space industry can still teach us much — and ultimately help find answers to some of the planet's problems.

"There are so many problems on the ground," she says, "but when we have a higher goals, then we can get various innovations, including technology and systems and way of thinking — and those kinds of innovations will help the life on Earth."

This is where her experience dovetails with William's point of view: "If we can utilize space as a resource to resolve our problems on the ground, it will be helpful."

The Earthshot Prize Ceremony, with Emma Thompson, Emma Watson, David Oyelowo and Mo Salah among the presenters and Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes and KSI and Coldplay performing, can be viewed on discovery+. William's five films in the Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet series are also on discovery+

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