For the crew of the International Space Station (ISS), the Sun rises and sets 16 times daily, as they circle the globe every 90 minutes. However, on Sunday, 9 March, another Sun—the blood-red rising Sun of the Japanese flag—will rise in the annals of human space flight, as Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov hands over command of the ISS to Japan’s Koichi Wakata, officially ending Expedition 38 and kicking off Expedition 39. For the next two months, Wakata will become the first of his countrymen to take charge of the space station. It is a pivotal and historic event and offers sterling recognition for the people of the Land of the Rising Sun, who have maintained their staunch support for the ISS and its predecessor, Space Station Freedom, since 1984.
Leading the multi-national outpost will undoubtedly be the pinnacle of Wakata’s career, although by his own admission he expects to continue many of his former daily duties as a flight engineer, having served for the last four months under Kotov’s command as part of the six-man Expedition 38 crew. However, there will be several key differences. “I will be taking the lead as the point of contact in the communications, daily and weekly, with the Mission Control Centers throughout the world,” he told a NASA interviewer before his launch aboard Soyuz TMA-11M on 7 November last year, “and also the program management of the International Space Station in the different countries. I need to make sure that everybody in the crew is in a healthy condition and safety comes first and efficiency and also the happiness of the crew members.”
Wakata was launched alongside Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. astronaut Rick Mastracchio, and they have joined fellow Russians Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky and NASA’s Mike Hopkins to form Expedition 38. Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins flew to the space station aboard Soyuz TMA-10M last 25 September and are scheduled to return to Earth, completing a 168-day voyage, on Tuesday, 11 March. In order to allow the outgoing crew time to prepare their Soyuz vehicle and equipment for departure, a change of command ceremony will be broadcast live on NASA TV on Sunday, in which Kotov will formally hand over the reins of the space station to Wakata.
This present mission is Wakata’s fourth journey into space; he previously served aboard two shuttle flights and a four-month ISS expedition, back in 2009. With four months of a planned six-month current expedition already under his belt, he now has 279 days (and counting) of cumulative time spent away from Earth. Looking at the numbers, this puts Japan in fourth place on the list of the world’s most flight-experienced spacefaring nations. The list is currently topped by Russia (whose Sergei Krikalev has 803 days of cumulative experience), with the United States in second place and Germany in third. Japan is now far higher on the table than France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, and looks set to retain its ranking for the foreseeable future.
Yet Japan is the last of the “core” ISS partners to have received a command of the grandest engineering accomplishment in human history. Of the 39 discrete expeditions staged since October 2000, the United States has commanded 16, Russia has commanded 20, and Europe, Canada, and Japan have commanded one each. For advice in the sphere of command, Wakata admitted before launch that he has learned much from his previous shuttle and ISS commanders. Recalling Brian Duffy—who commanded his STS-72 and STS-92 flights in January 1996 and October 2000—and Lee Archambault, Mark Polansky, and Gennadi Padalka, with whom he flew during his Expedition 19-20 increment in March-July 2009, Wakata paid tribute to their leadership qualities and mentorship. “They are great leaders,” he said, “they pay attention to details, they listen well, they delegate tasks and they are wonderful communicators with the Mission Control Center folks. I just want to be like them and I was very fortunate to experience and learn from these wonderful leaders.”
Japan’s first ISS commander was also the very first of his countrymen ever to be selected by NASA for shuttle mission specialist training, way back in 1992. Born on 1 August 1963 in the city of Ōmiya, within the Saitama Prefecture of Japan’s main island, Honshu, he developed a strong fascination for space exploration when he saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. “At the time, it seemed to me that only the people in the U.S. and also the former Soviet Union could work in space. It seemed to me that to go into space was something … beyond reach for me as a Japanese, since we did not have a human space program at the time.”
Nevertheless, his interest grew. As a youth Wakata built and flew model aircraft and as an undergraduate participated in competitions to construct and test gliders. In addition to studying mathematics and science, he learned English, “because many of the technical books in aerospace engineering were written in English back in those days.” Wakata gained a degree in aeronautical engineering from Kyushu University in 1987, followed by a master’s credential in 1989, then entered Japan Airlines as a structural engineer. Initially assigned to the Base Maintenance Department in Narita, near Tokyo, he later worked in the Airframe Group at the Systems Engineering Office of Japan Airlines’ engineering division. He was closely involved in the research of structural integrity of transport aircraft, including fatigue fractures, corrosion prevention programs, and the environmental effects on the polished aluminum fuselage of various commercial aircraft.
An astronaut career drew closer for Wakata, due to Japan’s involvement in the Space Station Freedom program and its intention to supply a large research laboratory for the orbital complex. “In 1991, NASDA [the National Space Development of Agency] announced that they [would] select a couple of astronauts to participate in the NASA astronaut training,” he explained, “and also to eventually fly in the assembly flights for the Japanese module on the International Space Station. Fortunately, I was selected.” His selection by NASDA came in April 1992, and he began training alongside NASA’s 14th group of astronaut candidates at JSC the following August.
Wakata’s first shuttle flight was as a mission specialist aboard STS-72 in January 1996, which retrieved Japan’s Space Flyer Unit (SFU) satellite from orbit and supported the deployment and retrieval of a Spartan technology satellite and two EVAs. He later served as NASDA’s assistant payload operations director for the Manipulator Flight Demonstration (MFD)—a precursor for the small robotic arm aboard Japan’s Kibo laboratory—which was carried aboard STS-85 in August 1997. By this time, Wakata had been assigned as a mission specialist on STS-92, which flew in October 2000 and delivered the Z-1 truss segment and a third Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA-3) to the fledgling ISS. On this flight, Wakata became the first Japanese to board the new space station. In the years to come, he worked in fields of robotics and undertook training for assignment to an ISS expedition. In March 2009, he was launched aboard STS-119 to begin a four-month mission as part of Expeditions 19 and 20, returning to Earth on STS-127 in July. Wakata subsequently headed Japan’s astronaut corps from 2010-2012.
In a very real sense, his career has thus spanned the entirety of the ISS development effort, from demonstration EVAs on STS-72 to station construction on STS-92, to long-duration spaceflight on Expeditions 19 and 20 and finally command on Expedition 39. His four months as a member of Expedition 38 have provided more than a basic grounding of the certainties and uncertainties that he can expect to see. Since launching on his current mission last November, Wakata has played a critical role in two contingency U.S. spacewalks over Christmas, as well as the capture and berthing of Orbital Sciences’ ORB-1 Cygnus cargo mission in January. Following the departure of Soyuz TMA-10M and Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins on Tuesday, he will lead Tyurin and Mastracchio for two weeks, before the arrival of Soyuz TMA-12M crewmen Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev of Russia and NASA’s Steve Swanson to restore Expedition 39 to six-man strength.
During their two weeks as a threesome, Wakata, Tyurin, and Mastracchio are expected to welcome SpaceX’s third dedicated Dragon cargo mission (SpX-3), which is currently tracking a launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., atop a “legged” Falcon 9 v1.1 booster on 16 March. Two days later, Wakata and Mastracchio will be at the controls of the station’s 57.7-foot (17.4-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm to grapple Dragon and berth it onto the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Harmony node, where it will remain for about a month. Next, on 26 March, Soyuz TMA-12M will rocket into orbit with Skvortsov, Artemyev, and Swanson, docking at the ISS just six hours after launch. A Russian Progress resupply craft will follow in April, followed by Orbital Sciences’ ORB-2 Cygnus mission in early May. Present plans envisage Soyuz TMA-11M bringing Wakata, Tyurin, and Mastracchio back to Earth on 14 May, by which time Japan’s first ISS commander will have accumulated 348 days in orbit, spread across four months.
With the ISS now expected to remain operational until at least 2024, it can be expected that more Japanese astronauts will follow in Wakata’s footsteps. “Rookie” astronauts Kimiya Yui and Takuya Onishi are currently in training for six-month expeditions, beginning in mid-2015 and mid-2016 respectively. Another rookie, Norishige Kanai, is still waiting for assignment to his first mission, and several veterans, including Soichi Noguchi, Satoshi Furukawa, and Aki Hoshide, remain on active status and potential contenders for future flight slots. For now, though, Sunday’s historic rising Sun for Japan marks an enormous step forward for an island nation which has supported the idea of the ISS from the outset and whose commitment to the program has spanned three decades. “Japan is very happy to have this opportunity to have the ISS commander from the Japanese astronaut corps,” said Wakata in his pre-flight NASA interview. “It is a big challenge for me.”