Koichi Wakata Becomes First From Japan to Command the International Space Station

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Koichi Wakata, now on his fourth space mission, became the first Japanese to assume command of the International Space Station early Sunday, as his Expedition 38 predecessor, Oleg Kotov, of Russia, along with U.S. astronaut Mike Hopkins and cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, prepared to depart the orbiting science laboratory.

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Japan's Koichi Wakata. Photo Credit: NASA/JAXA

Kotov, Ryazanskiy and Hopkins are set to climb aboard their Soyuz TMA-10M capsule late Monday, undock and descend into a southern landing zone in Kazakhstan, for a scheduled touchdown at 11:24 p.m., EDT, ending a 166-day voyage.

Kotov called Wakata a "friend and colleague," as he transferred responsibility for the six person crew’s safety and productivity during a traditional change of command ceremony in Japan's Kibo science module.

"I am humbled to assume command of the space station," said Wakata, 50, an astronaut of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and its predecessor, since 1992.

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Russia's Oleg Kotov, front left, transfers command of the International Space Station to Koichi Wakata early Sunday. They are joined by crewmates Mike Hopkins, Mikhail Tyurin, Rick Mastracchio and Sergey Ryazanskiy, positioned left to right behind.  Photo Credit: NASA TV

For the most part, the ISS has been alternately commanded by U.S. and Russian astronauts since permanent occupancy began in November 2000. However, Belgium's Frank DeWynne took the helm for the European Space Agency in late 2009 and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield served in the command role in early 2013.

"On this very memorable occasion, I congratulate JAXA and the nation of Japan on this milestone in human space flight," wrote NASA’s Mike Suffredini, the ISS program manager, in a letter to JAXA and released by the Japanese space agency.  "It is a testament to the critical contributions by Japan to the ISS partnership and the strong ties amongst the 15 partner nations."

The sentiments were echoed by A. B. Krasnov, head of piloted programs at ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency, who termed Wakata's command "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 research, including our joint experiments."

Wakata's command will reach into mid-May, when he too departs with current crewmates Rick Mastracchio, of NASA, and cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin. They reached the orbiting science laboratory in early November aboard the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft.

The station's crew complement is scheduled to return to six on March 25 with the launch and arrival of two Russians and a U.S. astronaut.

"Japan has become a very reliable partner of the International Space Station program. And as a partner of that program, Japan will be happy to see its own representative command the space station," said Wakata in pre-launch comments, noting the successful operations of the Kibo experiment module, and the Kounotori series of four automated resupply craft that have supported ISS operations. "I am just very fortunate to be able to serve as the first Japanese space station commander."

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