Cape Canaveral: The first Japanese astronaut to live aboard the International Space Station is preparing for a return flight, this time to serve as commander, officials said on Wednesday.
Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is due to leave in November with a pair of veteran astronauts from the United States and Russia.
Wakata, 50, is expected to take command of the orbital research outpost in March, marking the first time a Japanese astronaut will lead a human space mission.
"It means a lot to Japan to have its own representative to command the International Space Station," Wakata told a news conference broadcast from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"It`s a big milestone for Japan ... to have this experience," he said.
In 2009, Wakata became the first astronaut from Japan to live aboard the $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
Japan, one of 15 nations participating in the project, provided the station`s largest and most elaborate laboratory, named Kibo, as well as cargo resupply ships.
Wakata, who was part of two missions on NASA`s now-retired space shuttles, is training for his fourth flight along with NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, both 53.
Mastracchio, a veteran of three shuttle missions and one of NASA`s most experienced spacewalkers, will be making his first long-duration flight. Tyurin will be living aboard the station for a third time.
Command of the station typically rotates between a U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut. In 2009, Belgium astronaut Frank De Winne became the first European to command the station. Canada`s first commander, Chris Hadfield, was in charge from March until May.
Wakata, a native of Saitama, Japan, holds a bachelor`s degree in aeronautical engineering, a master`s in applied mechanics and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from Kyushu University. Before being selected as an astronaut in 1992, he worked as an aircraft structural engineer for Japan Airlines.
Wakata`s first two spaceflights, in January 1996 and October 2000, were aboard NASA space shuttles. He was Japan`s first live-aboard space station resident from March to July 2009. Upon returning to the station in November, Wakata will serve as a flight engineer before taking over command in March.