Wakata back on Earth after stint as ISS commander

Kyodo, Reuters

Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station, returned to Earth on Wednesday after completing a six-month mission.

Wakata, 50, landed in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft after handing his duties as ISS commander, which he assumed in March, to U.S. astronaut Steven Swanson. He served as the station’s skipper for 66 days.

Swanson and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will manage the station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations, until new crew mates arrive on May 28.

Wakata was the first Asian to head the station, where he worked with five other astronauts from the United States and Russia, including NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.

It was Wakata’s fourth trip to space, where he spent 188 days on this mission. It was the longest stay by a Japanese astronaut in a single voyage, surpassing the 167 days previously spent by Satoshi Furukawa.

Wakata’s total time in space across his four trips has reached 348 days, also the longest for a Japanese and followed by Soichi Noguchi’s 177 days.

While aboard the ISS, Wakata filmed Comet ISON with a 4K high-resolution camera, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.

Wakata joined the ISS in November 2013 and became the station’s 39th commander on March 9. Typical command duties include giving orders in the event of a fire or meteor strike.

To date, most commanders have been selected from the United States and Russia because those two countries lead the ISS project, but Canadians and Europeans have also headed the ISS.

Japan provides one unit of the ISS, a science laboratory named Kibo. In a ceremony marking the transfer of command, the crew gathered at the Japanese module.

“I had an honor of serving you as commander, which was an incredible opportunity for me to expand my knowledge and experience in managing this complex outpost of humans in space, and I couldn’t have done this job without the superb performance of my fellow crew mates and great teamwork,” Wakata said.

Until Tuesday, the station partnership, headed by the United States and Russia, had been relatively untouched by the rhetoric and economic sanctions stemming from Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. But the program’s protected status shifted after Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for space and defense, told news agencies Tuesday that he would not support a U.S. and European proposal to extend the space station beyond 2020.

Rogozin, who is among 11 Russian officials sanctioned by the United States, also said he would ban the sale of Russian-made rocket engines, which are used to launch U.S. military satellites. United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, use the Russian-made RD-180 engines to power the first stage of its Atlas 5 rockets.

Apparently exempt from Rogozin’s ban are Soyuz flight services, currently the only means of transporting crew to the space station following the retirement of the U.S. space shuttles in 2011. NASA pays Russia more than $60 million per person to fly its astronauts on Soyuz capsules and is expected to continue to do so until at least 2017.

NASA is reviewing proposals from at least three U.S. companies to develop a commercial space taxi, with the aim of breaking the Russian monopoly on crew flight services by 2017. The U.S. space agency had no immediate comment in response to Rogozin’s announcement.