CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata assumed command of the International Space Station on Sunday, becoming the first Japanese to oversee a manned space mission.
Wakata, 50, had been a flight engineer since he and two crewmates arrived at ISS on Nov. 7.
“I am humbled to assume the command of the space station,” Wakata said during a change-of-command ceremony broadcast on NASA Television.
Outgoing station commander Oleg Kotov, flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy, both from Russia, and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins are due to depart the orbital outpost Monday. Their replacements arrive March 26.
Wakata’s command marks just the third time the station is being overseen by a crew member who is not from NASA or the Russian Space Agency, the two primary partners of the 15-nation project.
Canadian Chris Hadfield was commander from March to May 2013, while European Space Agency astronaut Frank DeWinne led a station crew in 2009.
“I am very proud as a Japanese to be given this important command,” Wakata, speaking in Japanese, said through a translator.
“I think that this reflects the real trust toward Japan and what Japan has achieved over the past years,” he said.
So far, four Japanese have served as ISS members, including Wakata, who previously flew in 2009. He is also a veteran of two space shuttle missions.
Along with NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, Wakata is set to remain aboard the station until mid-May.
One of his first tasks will be to oversee the arrival of a Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon cargo ship due to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida next Sunday and reach the station on March 18.