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Astronaut Koichi Wakata will become the first Japanese to captain the International Space Station when he takes command at the end of 2013, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said Thursday.

For his fourth space mission and his second long-term assignment, Wakata, 47, will stay aboard the ISS for six months after traveling there aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. He will take command for the last two months of the mission, JAXA said.

“I’m truly grateful for being given such a great opportunity,” Wakata said Thursday morning in Japan during a teleconference linked to JAXA’s office in Tokyo and the space center in Houston, where he usually trains.

“(My appointment as commander) is beyond what I expected. I feel greatly honored, given that Japan is the only country (involved in the project) that has not produced an ISS captain.”

He also said he intends to unite his team as a Japanese who puts a premium on harmonious relationships.

During the first four months in orbit, Wakata will conduct scientific experiments using JAXA’s Kibo space lab.

Wakata, a Saitama Prefecture native and graduate of Kyushu University, began his space career in 1992 after working as an engineer at Japan Airlines Corp.

He flew on space shuttle missions in 1996 and 2000 before completing an extended stay at the ISS in 2009.

He is known for his skill at handling robotic arms in outer space, which he put to good use in retrieving a Japanese satellite from orbit and in fitting Kibo with an external experiment facility.

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