Early this Sunday morning, astronaut Koichi Wakata became the first Japanese national to assume command of the International Space Station. Wakata is taking over from space station veteran commander Oleg Kotov from Russia to lead Expedition 39. As the first Japanese promoted to the position of commander, Wakata’s success represents both a proud moment for Japanese contributions to human space flight and also for the spirit of international collaboration.
At 50 years old, Wakata is now on his fourth space mission. He has been a part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and its predecessor institution for over twenty years. Using his training as an aeronautical engineer, Koichi Wakata has assumed a number of responsibilities in the space station. He works extensively with space shuttle and ISS robotics, maintains the shuttle flight software verification and thermal protection systems, and is particularly involved in efforts to study biology and medicine using the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) that is colloquially referred to as “Kibo”.
As the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station, Koichi Wakata will hopefully continue to lead off-planet developments in sciences and engineering. Results from this last space mission have revealed exciting discoveries on matters such as how microgravity affects bone development, how plants respond to space station growing conditions, and the observation of the brightest level gamma-ray burst ever witnessed.
Expedition 38, which has lasted about 166 days, will come to a conclusion early in the coming week. On Monday afternoon astronauts Kotov, Ryazanskiy, and Hopkins will say their farewells to the three men who will remain in the space station. The return trip to planet Earth is scheduled to land at 11:24 pm in Kazakhstan.
Wakata’s crew will remain small for the time being. After the three departing astronauts leave, only Wakata, Mastracchio, and Tyurin will remain on the ISS. They will stay there until mid-May. However on March 25th they are scheduled to be joined by another set of three fresh residents: Steve Swanson from NASA and Russian astronauts Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov. This past week these candidates completed their exams at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City Russia. Their arrival will restore the station’s crew complement back to its normal number of six.
Though the International Space Station is a collaborative effort between 15 participating nations, the main players have always been NASA and the Russian Space Agency. Wakata’s promotion to commander will be only the third time in history that the International Space Station has been overseen by someone not from one of these two agencies. Previous to Wakata, Frank DeWynne from Belgium was placed in command in 2009 and two years later Chris Hadfield from Canada followed. Now as the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station, Wakata’s achievements highlight a willingness for international cooperation and the contributions that the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has made to off-planet exploration.
By Sarah Takushi