The first Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata assumed oversight of the International Space Station today. Wakata is replacing outgoing station commander Oleg Kotov to become the first Japanese national to command a manned space mission. The Japanese astronaut arrived to the space station on Nov. 7 with two crew members.
Wakata is one of four Japanese astronauts in history who have served as crew members. The station commander’s first stint in space was 2009. Wakata also has two years of space shuttle mission experience on his resume.
The change of command announcement was broadcast Sunday on NASA television. Wakata stated that he was humbled to be rewarded with this prestigious honor. The honor for Wakata represents the third time the space station is overseen by a crew member outside of NASA or the Russian Space Agency. The two organizations are the majority contributors of the 15-nation project.
The other two foreign commanders were Canadian Chris Hadfield and European Space Agency astronaut Frank Dewinne who served in 2013 and 2009
Mar. 9 marks the first day of Expedition 39. Expedition 38 commander Kotov passed control to Commander Wakata of Expedition 39. Kotov departs the station Monday Mar. 10 with fellow Russian flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins. The trip begins at 4:45 pm EST and lands southeast of Dzhezkazgan at 11:24 p.m.
The three astronauts successfully completed their 166-day mission on the space station. The successful completion of their tenure included a descent drill, checking the navigation system on the Soyuz spacecraft to transport the astronauts to Kazakhstan and reviewing emergency procedures.
A first major task under Wakata’s command of Expedition 39 is overseeing the safe landing of Space Exploration Technologies’ cargo ship to the International Space Station. The cargo ship launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force base in Florida on Mar. 16 and lands on the station Mar. 18.
Since landing on the space station Nov. 7, Wakata has invested his time in setting up a new test. The new test is conducted in the Fluid Physics Experiment Facility. The testing leads to research that can enable improvements in DNA examination and production of semiconductors.
The two crew members with Wakata are NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin. Mastracchio assisted Hopkins with maintenance around the ISS. Hopkins also conducted tests that analyze the behavior of suspended particles in liquid and weighed himself using a device that measures space linear mass measurement. A safe conclusion is that Hopkins attended his science courses.
Three astronauts will replace the departure of Hopkins, Kotov and Ryazanskiy. NASA is sending Steve Swanson and Russia is sending Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev. The next round of astronauts launch Mar. 25 from the Baikonur Comodrome in Kazakhstan.
The ISS is a $100 billion research laboratory that flies 260 miles above Earth. Crews have been rotating since November 2000 to keep the space station perpetually staffed.
Wakata will oversee the International Space Station with assistance from his two crew members. The crew is scheduled to reside on the station through mid-may.
Opinion by Niles Olson