Gathered, appropriately, in Japan’s Kibo module, the first Japanese astronaut ever to command the International Space Station (ISS) officially kicked off Expedition 39 yesterday (Sunday) in a moving and humorous ceremony. Koichi Wakata—who was launched aboard Soyuz TMA-11M last November, alongside Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio—will now lead the outpost until mid-May. In the meantime, their three outgoing Expedition 38 crewmates—Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky and NASA’s Mike Hopkins—are scheduled to undock from the ISS aboard their Soyuz TMA-10M spacecraft late Monday for touchdown on the steppe of Kazakhstan a few hours later. In doing so, Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins will complete 166 days in orbit.
Although Japan has been an integral part of the ISS program and its predecessor, Space Station Freedom, since the mid-1980s, Sunday marked the first occasion on which one of its citizens actually took command of the most audacious engineering accomplishment in human history. It represents a historic event and offers sterling recognition for the accomplishments of the people of the Land of the Rising Sun. In 39 ISS expeditions since October 2000, no fewer than 20 have been commanded by a Russian cosmonaut, 16 by a U.S. astronaut, and one apiece by representatives of Europe, Canada, and now Japan.
Outgoing Expedition 38 commander Oleg Kotov began the formal change of command ceremony by reflecting on a “really good increment,” whose key challenges and successes had been the conduct of several EVAs and the mammoth task of keeping the station in good working order. He expressed thanks in English and Russian—and offered a smattering of Japanese, too—to his crewmates and to the teams on the ground, in various nations, for their support. “Really glad,” he concluded, “to hand command of the station to my friend, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.”
Upon receiving the microphone, Wakata noted that he was “humbled” to assume command of the ISS and extended warm congratulations to the Expedition 38 crew. He stressed that their expedition had seen three Visiting Vehicles (a pair of Russian Progress resupply craft in November and February and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s ORB-1 Cygnus mission, launched in January) and several critical EVAs, including a pair of U.S. spacewalks last Christmas to remove and replace a failed ammonia pump module. Wakata pointed to Kotov’s “outstanding guidance,” praised Hopkins—”the strongest astronaut who ever lived on the space station”—for having lent his support whenever necessary, and lauded Ryazansky for his medical skills and for schooling his crewmates in how to take the best photographs from the ISS.
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, “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.”
Present plans call for the hatches between the station and Soyuz TMA-10M to close at about 4:30 p.m. EDT Monday, whereupon Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins will undock at 8:02 p.m. EDT Monday (6:02 a.m. local Kazakh time Tuesday). If all goes well, the descent module of their Soyuz will touch down on the desolate steppe of Central Asia a little more than three hours later, at 11:24 p.m. EDT Monday (9:24 a.m. local Kazakh time Tuesday). Assuming an on-time landing, this will produce a mission duration for Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins of 166 days, seven hours, and 26 minutes. For Ryazansky and Hopkins, it will bring to a close their first space mission, whilst Kotov concludes his third flight and establishes himself, with 526 days of cumulative experience, as the world’s 13th most experienced spacefarer, just behind Fyodor Yurchikhin and ahead of Aleksandr Viktorenko.
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 282 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.
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 he 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. Following the departure of Soyuz TMA-10M and Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins on Monday, he will serve alongside 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.”