Expedition 39 commander Koichi Wakata poses between Mikhail Tyurin and Rick Mastracchio inside Japan's Kibo lab onboard the International Space Station on Feb. 22, 2014. (NASA)
The International Space Station has its first Japanese commander.
Astronaut Koichi Wakata of JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) was handed over command during a ceremony held onboard the outpost early Sunday morning (March 9). Wakata, who has been a flight engineer aboard the space station since November, will lead the complex's 39th expedition crew through mid-May.
"I am humbled to assume command of the space station," Wakata said, floating with his crewmates in the Japanese Kibo laboratory. "I am very proud as a Japanese to be be given this important commandership of ISS."
"Welcome Wakata-san," radioed JAXA mission control in Tsukuba, Japan. "It is indeed a special day for the human space program, especially for the people in Japan."
Wakata is replacing ISS Expedition 38 commander Oleg Kotov, a Russian cosmonaut who after 166 days in orbit is returning to Earth with cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins on Monday. The departure of their Soyuz TMA-10M spacecraft at just after 8:00 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT on March 10), will signal the beginning of Expedition 39.
"I am really glad to pass command of the space station to my friend, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata," Kotov said as part of the handover ceremony. "So, now it is time to learn Japanese language aboard the station, so arigato!"
Wakata's initial charge are his two Soyuz TMA-11M crew-mates, Rick Mastracchio with NASA and Mikhail Tyurin of Roscosmos. The Soyuz TMA-13M crew, including NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov, are scheduled to lift off to the station March 25 to complete the Expedition 39 crew.
Wakata, now 50, was selected for Japan's astronaut corps in 1992 and four years later became the nation's third full-time astronaut to fly in space.
Over the course of his three prior spaceflights, Wakata set records as Japan's first space shuttle mission specialist, his country's first astronaut to work on building the space station, and the first Japanese crewmember to complete a long-duration stay on the outpost. To date, he has logged more than 280 days off the planet.
Wakata is the first-ever Japanese astronaut to command a space mission.
"It means a lot to Japan to have its own representative to command the International Space Station," Wakata said in a briefing. "It's a big milestone for Japanese human space exploration to have this experience."
Though Japan does not launch its own crewmembers, it is a well represented partner aboard the space station.
"Since Japan has been involved in the International Space Station program, we have worked hard," Wakata said in a NASA interview. "JAXA launched the Japanese logistics module, an experiment module, the Kibo module."
The Kibo lab, one of three science-dedicated modules that are attached to the space station, is the complex's largest room. It is outfitted with its own experiment airlock, robotic arm and platform (porch) for exterior science experiments.
JAXA also launches cargo the space station using its H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTV), known as "Kounotori," or "white stork." To date, Japan has launched four of the unmanned resupply craft, with a fifth due to launch this summer.
"Looking at the Kibo's performance and [HTV] Kounotori's contribution, Japan has become a very reliable partner of the International Space Station program," Wakata said.
For the more than 13 years the station has been crewed, most of its commanders have either been U.S. astronauts or Russian cosmonauts. Sixteen NASA astronauts and 14 Roscosmos cosmonauts have headed expedition crews, though Russia has had two crewmen serve as commander twice, and one who has led four station increments.
In 2009, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne became the first non-American, non-Russian to lead serve as space station commander. Since then, only one other nation's astronaut has led the outpost, Canada's Chris Hadfield in 2013.
Wakata to become 33rd commander of ISS on Sunday
Astronaut Koichi Wakata, now serving his second long-term assignment on the International Space Station, was set to become the first Japanese commander of the ISS on Sunday evening, Japan time.
Wakata, 50, will take on the heavy responsibility of being the 33rd ISS commander for a term of about two months until mid-May.
Eight Japanese astronauts have been sent into outer space since Mamoru Mori boarded the space shuttle Endeavour as the first Japanese astronaut in 1992. Wakata’s assumption of the ISS command is the latest milestone in the nation’s manned space development program.
The ISS commander’s roles include serving as the representative of the space station, such as by communicating with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and dignitaries from various countries as a moderator. The commander also must ensure the safety of the crew in emergencies such as fire or the high-speed approach of space debris, giving proper instructions.
The commander is replaced at intervals of several months to half a year, when ISS crew members return to Earth.
Wakata, who has been aboard the ISS since November on a six-month mission, will take over the command from Russian Oleg Kotov, 48, who will return to Earth on Tuesday.
Wakata said in a communication with Earth that he would like to reinforce good relationships with the five other ISS astronauts to help them improve their abilities.
ISS commanders are selected at a conference of the space agencies of Japan, Canada, Europe, Russia and the United States, which have been participating in the ISS project.
The United States, in particular, has a great influence on the selection, as the country plays a central part in the project.
Yoshiyuki Hasegawa, an executive director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said the United States confidentially consulted JAXA in the early 2000s about choosing Wakata as a future ISS commander. It was around the time Wakata received a high evaluation of his technical skills for work on assembling the ISS and other operations.
Wakata was officially chosen as the ISS commander for the 39th expedition mission during a 2011 meeting of the space agencies of the member countries. His experience as an administrator who coordinated the schedules of the astronauts was also said to be highly regarded.
Since the time when JAXA was called the National Space Development Agency, it has been sending astronauts and other personnel to NASA to train and learn administrative management methods. Wakata—now on his fourth stay in space, the most ever by a Japanese astronaut—has been the driving force behind these efforts.
“His appointment as the ISS commander proves that Japan was finally recognized as a partner on an equal footing [with other participants],” said Mori, 66, currently the chief executive director of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan).
Astronaut Wakata's Assumption of the ISS Commander
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
Astronaut Wakata Koichi, who is in his long-duration stay on board the ISS, has succeeded Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and become the 39th ISS Commander on March 9, 2014.
Wakata will take the leadership of the six ISS crewmembers until the day before he leaves the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft (37S/TMA-11M) scheduled around mid-May.
Astronaut Wakata Koichi's Assumption of the ISS Commander
It is my great pleasure that Astronaut Wakata Koichi, who is in his long-duration stay on board the ISS, has succeeded Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and become the 39th ISS Commander on March 9, 2014.
The ISS Commander must take the great responsibility and high capability of crisis management for ensuring the crewmember's safety and the success of the ISS missions. I believe that Wakata's assumption of the ISS Commander results from his versatile skills and leadership he has performed through the ground training and the on-orbit experiences, and also from the trust the international society place in Japan which Japan has built in the course of the space development.
Wakata has "Wa" as his principle word of this long-duration stay. The word, meaning Japanese spirit of harmony, is one of the virtues that Japanese praise most. The ISS is a symbol of fifteen nations' international cooperation. I am certain that the Japanese will be in empathy with Wakata fulfilling his duty as the ISS Commander with the heart of "Wa".
On March 11, three years will have passed since Japan suffered from the tremendous damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. I hope that Wakata's unremitting challenge encourages the Japanese in reconstructing from the disaster, following the Olympic athletes who have showed us brilliant performances in Sochi.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Russian Federal Space Agency (FSA), all other domestic and overseas organizations, and the individuals for their efforts and support. I appreciate your continuous cooperation with us.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
On March 9, 2014 for the first time in history, a Japanese astronaut, Dr. Koichi Wakata, will assume command of the International Space Station (ISS). On this very memorable occasion, I congratulate JAXA and the nation of Japan on this milestone in human space flight. It is a testament to the critical contributions by Japan to the ISS partnership and the strong ties amongst the 15 partner nations.
JAXA has developed a world-class orbiting laboratory, Kibo, and is conducting groundbreaking research. I am confident the research being conducted aboard the ISS will yield benefits for all humankind and the strong ties between our nations will help lead humanity in the exploration of space.
Manager, International Space Station Program
Dear Dr. Miyake,
Please accept my sincere congratulations on the occasion of a successful conclusion of the thirty eighth long duration expedition of the International Space Station (ISS) and the beginning of work of the thirty ninth long duration expedition (ISS-39) on ISS.
For the first time on ISS the JAXA astronaut Mr. Koichi Wakata started fulfillment of duties as commander of station in expedition ISS-39 that is an important milestone on a way of expansion of partnership in the field of construction and operation of the ISS. This stage opens additional opportunities for implementation of the scientific program researches, including our joint experiments.
I wish optimism look at prospects of implementation of new joint projects and deepening of our cooperation.