Preflight Interview: Koichi Wakata, Mission Specialist
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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, flight engineer. Photo Credit: NASA

Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. Tell me what it was that motivated you, or inspired you, to become an astronaut.

I vividly remember, when I was 5 years old I saw the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and, that was the beginning of my strong desire to fly in space. But at the time there was no Japanese astronaut and I thought it was beyond my reach to be able to work in human space exploration. After working as an aeronautical structural engineer I saw an advertisement on the newspaper that the Japanese space agency was going to select a few astronauts to be sent to NASA to be qualified as mission specialist. At the time the strong desire, strong longing for spaceflight came back to me. I wanted take on this challenge of my life. I applied for the selection and luckily got selected.

Tell me about the place where you grew up, Saitama. What was that place like when you were a boy there.

Saitama, like many towns near Tokyo, is, kind of like a combination of small town Japan and Tokyo suburb. Because of its location, which is in the vicinity of Tokyo, Saitama allows people to commute into the capital of Japan while living in that less-crowded area. There are a lot of favorite places but my most favorite place in Saitama is Hikawa Shrine, which is said to be more than 2,000 years old. It has nearby beautiful ponds and a beautiful park. It is kind of like a quiet island in the bustling city of Saitama.

Is Saitama similar to growing up in the suburbs of Houston?

Houston provides more spaciousness feeling to me, compared to any part of Japan, but in a sense it is like that: it is a suburban area of the big city of Tokyo.

Do you have a sense of how the, that place and the people that were there, helped influence you to become the person that you are today?

Yes. My parents, my teachers, my friends all influenced me a lot. My brother and I grew up in Saitama under the watchful eyes of our very caring parents. Our teachers always encouraged me to have a strong dream and work hard. I really thank them for doing that. They set the foundation of who I am right now.

When you’re, when you flew in space before, did you get a chance to see Saitama from orbit?

Yes, very much, but you have to be very careful because the space shuttle flies at 17,500 mph. Unless I’m watching on the computer display that shows where I’m flying. Of course, Japan is a small country. We pass by those small islands really quickly. But I took a lot of pictures when I flew in space. As a matter of fact on my second flight, students of my elementary school sang a song, of a very favorite, famous Japanese song and then gave a CD to me. I had an opportunity to listen to the wonderful singing of my elementary school pupil[s] while I was watching the beautiful Japanese islands.

You mentioned that you became interested in flying in space as a child and didn’t get a chance to apply until you were already an adult. Fill in the space in between -- the course of your education and your professional career before you became an astronaut.

After graduating from high school, Urawa High School in Saitama, I studied aeronautical engineering, as an undergraduate and also as graduate, and later I received a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Before I was selected as an astronaut I worked as a structural engineer for Japan Airlines. All my life I was really interested in airplanes. This fascination in flying, fascination with the flying vehicle and the drive to take on challenge made me apply for the astronauts. I was just lucky to be selected.

Well, as you say, you were interested in, in flying in space but didn’t think it was possible. What was it that set you on a course of studying engineering and aeronautics?

Since my childhood I was always interested in airplanes and I was really intrigued why such a heavy metal thing could fly. I always made model airplanes and some day I wanted to, to build an airplane by myself. That’s why I studied math and science and tried to learn English because many of the, the technical books in aerospace engineering were written in English back in those days. I was lucky to be able to pursue study in that field.

Now we know that flying in space can be something that can be dangerous. What is it we get as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one that you’re willing to take?

I think, by exploring space we obtain new knowledge and new technologies that can benefit humankind, knowledge about the entire universe of the planet. Not only that, by exploring our frontier in space we will come up with new technologies that will allow us to survive as species in the future, eternally. What we are doing right now is, is a preparation stage to be able to survive as a species in the future. Some day we may need go into space and live [on] other planets to sustain our existence as species. Also, in case of a lot of emergencies, like tsunami, earthquakes, environmental change, what we are having now, and what we are now gaining in human space exploration, the new technologies, for example, environmental control and life support system, those technologies will help us to cope with these kinds of difficulties that could possibly happen in the future. So, I think the risks associated with human spaceflight are worth taking, considering all this benefits that we could gain from it.

You’re a flight engineer on Expedition 18 and 19 to the International Space Station. Would you summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities are going to be?

On both of the Expeditions, Expedition 18 and 19, I will serve as a flight engineer, and, on the upcoming mission on the space shuttle Discovery, on STS-119, as well as on my return flight, on STS-127, I will serve as a mission specialist and will be involved in assembly of the International Space Station.

What does a flight engineer do on the International Space Station?

On board the International Space Station currently we have three crew members, Commander Mike Fincke and flight engineers Yury Lonchakov, and Sandy Magnus. So three of them are conducting variety of experiments and performing maintenance tasks to keep the system going on the International Space Station. When I go up on STS-119 I will replace Sandy Magnus and continue to perform a lot of experiments and maintenance tasks on the International Space Station.

You’ve flown in space before. You’ve flown to the International Space Station before, but never on an extended mission such as you’re doing now. What are you looking forward to about the prospect of spending months off of the planet?

I was very fortunate to be able to, to fly with, my wonderful crewmates on STS-72 and STS-92. Both of the flights were less than two weeks long. This time I think my entire flight is a combination of two 100-meter sprints and one marathon. Of course the, two shuttle missions are those sprints and the station long-duration flight is the marathon part. If you consider the shuttle flight as a kind of short-term TDY [temporary duty] to a foreign country, I think, long-duration flight is almost like a permanent assignment to a foreign country. So I am very much looking forward to this. For me it is a new challenge to live and work in the space station.

When you do you’re going to be Japan’s first-ever long-duration space traveler. Talk about the significance of your flight as it relates to Japan’s space exploration effort.

It is over 20 years since Japan started this endeavor, in participating in the International Space Station program. Early in 2008, two shuttle missions assembled the two components of the, the Kibo module on board International Space Station. Now it is time for us to utilize the wonderful experiment platform, the Kibo module. To be able to conduct a variety of experiments, we need to be able to stay on board the space station on a long-duration basis to fully utilize the asset. I am very fortunate to be able to participate in a long-duration flight to fully utilize the Kibo module.

Do you have a sense of what you and your successors will be able to accomplish, using Kibo?

Kibo is the first Japanese spacecraft, which can host a variety of experiments, and on which we -- the astronauts – can live and work for a long period of time. I think Kibo is a very important step for Japan, to expand our frontier in space, because this is the first, human space experiment module for Japan. I am very thrilled to be part of this endeavor. For Japan, we will be able to gain a lot of experiment data and also experiences of living in low Earth orbit for a long time.

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 18 flight engineer, gives a thumbs-up signal as he awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Wakata is wearing a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

Let’s talk about, your flight; starts with, as you mentioned, shuttle mission STS-119. What are the goals of that mission to the International Space Station?

STS-119 is going to launch the last truss segment of the International Space Station; that truss segment is called the S6 Truss, which houses two solar arrays. Those solar arrays provide electricity to continue a variety of experiments on the International Space Station. We will have four spacewalks to put together the components on the S6 Truss. John Phillips and I will be involved in the operation of the Canadarm2 to install the S6 Truss. It is a coincidence for me that I was also involved in the assembly of the first, truss segment of the international station, Z1 Truss, back in 2000 on STS-92. S6 is the last component of the truss segment of the International Space Station. I’m very lucky to be able to serve on both of those flights.

Is the addition of that final set of U.S. solar arrays, the S6 Truss, contingent on the status of the starboard-side solar alpha rotary joint?

The answer is no. The current status of the starboard solar alpha rotary joint allows us to install the S6 Truss to the starboard side. The previous mission, STS-126, performed the maintenance tasks such as replacement of the trundle bearing assemblies; they did the maintenance successfully, so, we can continue to, build the new element, the S6 Truss, to the starboard side.

You touched on the fact that you’re going to be involved in working the space station’s robotic arm during, installation of the S6 Truss. What will you be doing during the joint docked operations on STS-119.

Using the Canadarm2, together with my crewmate, John Phillips, I will be involved in the assembly, or putting the component S6 Truss to the, the S5 Truss. First we have to unberth the S6 Truss. John Phillips and actually Sandy Magnus will be involved in that. After overnight park of the, truss, this time John Phillips and I will be operating the, the Canadarm2 to install that big 32,000-pound component to the edge of the starboard side.

That will be a little different than installing the Z1 Truss.

Yeah. Z1 was 18,000 pounds and this time it’s 32,000 pounds, so it’s almost twice as big.

And not just in terms of weight, in terms of length.

Right, and, of course it is a very long component. Last time when I installed the Z1 Truss I was using the Canadarm, on the space shuttle, and this time it’s going to be my first experience to operate the Canadarm2, the big space station robotic arm. I’m very much looking forward to it.

In order to complete this task, does the arm have to ride out on the truss segment or is it all done from one operating base?

The operating base will be different. First, when we unberth the S6 Truss, it’s from one location, and then we have to hand it over, that S6 Truss, to the shuttle robotic arm, and then we move the base of the Canadarm2 so that we can reach the tip of the starboard side of the truss. Then, again, we will take the S6 Truss from the shuttle arm to the big arm and then we install the S6 Truss using the, the big arm, the Canadarm2.

So your operations are not just moving something around on the end of the arm, it’s moving the arm itself.

Actually, the mobile transporter will move the base of the Canadarm2.

OK. Otherwise, what are your jobs going to be during that handover time on STS-119?

As soon as my seat liner of the Soyuz spacecraft is moved from the shuttle side to the station and to the Soyuz spacecraft, I will become officially the crew member of the, Expedition 18, replacing Sandy Magnus, so I will be busy, transferring the items that I need to stay on board International Space Station, starting with the seat liner.

And everything else you’re bringing with you?


Once the shuttle goes home you’re going to be spending time with Mike Fincke and Yury Lonchakov getting the station ready to handle a larger permanent crew. What it is that’s required to get the station set up to accommodate a crew of six people.

My crewmates of Expedition 18, Commander Mike Fincke and flight engineers Yury Lonchakov and Sandy Magnus, already started to set up the station to accommodate six crew members in the upcoming missions. We need to have a new capability to host more than three people on board International Space Station, and those systems are the Water Recovery System, and, Waste and Hygiene Compartment, and also the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device. For example, the Water Recovery System is a system that will make the potable water from urine and the condensate water. The Waste and Hygiene Compartment is a new toilet, and of course, we need to be able to, perform exercise throughout the mission on a long-duration basis. So the new equipment is very critical for the six crew members to live and work in the space station.

As you said, most of that equipment was delivered on STS-126, but after you arrive you’ll still be doing work getting everything set up, correct?

Right. We need to make sure that these systems, for example, the Water Recovery System, work appropriately for a long-duration basis. The STS-119 crew will be utilizing the new toilet on the International Space Station so that it can process the required amount to cope with the six crew members on the International Space Station. So we will be checking out new systems throughout Expedition 18 and 19 before the second Soyuz comes up, to house six crew members.

Another one of your jobs after you arrive is going to be preparing Kibo to receive its final components. Talk about the Japan Experiment Module Exposed Facility and the Experiment Logistics Module Exposed Section, and what you’re going to be doing to get the station ready for them to be delivered.

On STS-123 and on STS-124 my Japanese colleague astronauts, Takao Doi and Aki Hoshide, participated in assembly of the International Space Station’s Kibo module. On those missions they installed the Logistics Module and the pressurized module, which is a core component of the Kibo module. On STS-127, the last flight to assemble the Kibo module, the crew will bring up, two components, the [JEM] Exposed Facility and the logistics pallet. I will be involved in the robotics operation to install the Exposed Facility to the Kibo’s pressurized module, and after that I will also be part of the robotics operation crew to install the Experiment Logistics Module Exposed Section to the Exposed Facility. On that pallet there are three payloads. Those three payloads will be transferred from the pallet to the Exposed Facility using the Kibo’s robotic arm, and I will be involved in that robotic arm operation as well.

And that’s all, as you say, during STS-127. Is there work before 127 arrives to get Kibo ready to accept these new components?

Yes. STS-124 crew members, Karen Nyberg and Aki Hoshide performed the checkout -- and Greg Chamitoff and Sandy Magnus are part of the checkout crew members of the Kibo’s robotic arm. But what I’ll do during my Expedition 18 time is have the final checkout of the Kibo’s robotic arm by demonstrating the very similar trajectory of the motion of the arm during the STS-127 -- those trajectories are the trajectories for the transfer of the payloads to the Exposed Facility. And after that is completed, we will be ready to use the Kibo robotic arm for the first time operationally.

Kibo is Japan’s first manned space facility. How are the people in Japan responding to the flight of the Japanese components and the Japanese astronauts to the space station and the start of operations in Kibo?

When STS-123 and STS-124 delivered the first two components of the Kibo module to the ISS, we had very big media coverage of those missions. It created very big enthusiasm among the people in Japan in human space exploration. It’s over 20 years since Japan started to work on this project. I think taxpayers deserve to see us get to the next level, which is the utilization of the International Space Station. Each time a Japanese astronaut flies in space, the media coverage is very big, and, I hope my flight, as a long-duration flight crew member will further motivate the people in Japan in the human space exploration.

Well, let’s talk about science. A lot of the science that is done on board the station is research into how people can live and work for long periods of time in a microgravity environment. Tell me about some of those kinds of experiments that you’ll be working on during Expeditions 18 and 19.

One of the experiments that I’ll be involved in is human physiology. As a test subject, I’ll be participating in experiment using bisphosphonate. On the ground, we use bisphosphonate as a medication, which is a countermeasure to osteoporosis. In space, we have a very similar, phenomenon of losing bone density, which happens to both men and women, young and elder. As a test subject I’ll be, testing that bisphosphonate medication to see if that has any influence, not only on the osteoporosis on the ground but also for our bone loss in microgravity. The mechanism is different. If that helps to alleviate the bone density loss, that’ll be very important data for us to continue our flight to Mars. That’s one example. In fluid science, I’ll be involved in a variety of experiments. One is the ice crystal growth experiment, which is a JAXA experiment. In that experiment utilizing the fluid test rack in the JEM module, the investigators will be checking ice crystal formation, in microgravity. That kind of information, or the data, will help us understand variety of phenomena happening not only on the Earth but also in the different planets of the solar system. And there’s a European Space Agency experiment I’ll be involved in, call Geoflow, which simulates like a mini-core of the Earth core. The Earth core, the inner core, is solid and made of iron, and the outer core is liquid and it’s made of nickel-iron. And the outer core actually has a temperature of 5,000 to 6,000 degrees Celsius. Because of this temperature gradation creates some sort of motion of the outer core liquid. It is believed that this motion of this substance causes the Earth's magnetism. So by having a simulated Earth core, inner and outer core, in an experiment module, they can study the actual phenomenon, or the, what’s happening in this fluid that is simulating the Earth core. That’s one of the examples of experiments that I’ll be involved in.

All of these different scientific disciplines research is going to be able to be done inside Kibo? It has that many different facilities?

Actually, the Geoflow is in the Columbus module. The ice crystal experiment is in the Kibo module. For Kibo module experiments, I will also be part of the experiment called Dome Gene, which is to study the influence of microgravity in cell differentiation and, morphogenesis of a cultured cell of an amphibian. We have the SAIBO rack to conduct that experiment. The experiment itself is going to go up on STS-119 and I’ll be involved in that experiment throughout the long-duration flight.

Kibo does have facilities to support experiments in quite a range of disciplines?

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Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 18 flight engineer, takes a moment for a photo during a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Wakata is wearing a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

Right: Life science, fluid dynamics, material processing … and there are more experiments coming in. And, what I talked about is the, inside of the Kibo module, the core module, JPM [Japanese Pressurized Module]. After STS-127 we will have experiments on the Exposed Facility, which I will not be involved in during my flight, but there are more capabilities added on to the Kibo module.

There’s something else that I don’t think you will be involved in but I want to ask you about it, because 2009 also promises to see the first launch of the Japanese cargo vehicle, the HTV, to the International Space Station. Tell me about that spacecraft and about how it will contribute to space station operations.

HTV’s also, has also been long in the works for JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. HTV, or H-II Transfer Vehicle, is a logistics supply vehicle, to the International Space Station.

And just to, so people understand, “H-II” is…

H-II is a Japanese rocket developed by JAXA. We are currently developing the beefed-up, the more powerful version, which is called H-IIB. That will carry the HTV to the International Space Station. That will be launched from Tanegashima Space Center in southern part of Japan. After launch on the H-IIB rocket HTV will perform an automatic rendezvous to the International Space Station. On its approach, on the International Space Station’s R-bar, it goes up gradually until it's at a distance where an astronaut on board the space station can use the Canadarm2 to grapple the HTV. And, HTV can carry not only supplies and experiments for the interior of the International Space Station, but also it can carry external items -- bigger items, like batteries – for the outside of the space station. So because of this logistics supply capability, HTV will play an important role, especially after the retirement of the space shuttle, because currently only the space shuttle can carry those external payloads like batteries.

The HTV will carry those payloads inside it, but they will [be] deployed outside the space station?

Actually, HTV itself has two major sections. One is an interior portion of HTV, and there’s exposed pallet as well. And exposed pallet can carry, for example, JEM, Kibo module experiments, or the USOS [United States operating segment] batteries. So we need to use the Canadarm2 to take out the exposed pallet from the HTV vehicle, and then either put it on the Mobile Base System, or to the Japanese module’s Exposed Facility. And after that we will either use the Japanese robotic arm or the Canadarm, and also Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator to further deploy the individual batteries to be housed to the International Space Station.

So the HTV is more flexible in the terms of the kinds of cargo that it can carry than the shuttle or Progress?

That’s right. This uniqueness of the HTV is, I think, the capability to carry the external payloads.

Your mission is going to stretch from Expedition 18 into Expedition 19 at the time when Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt arrive in a Soyuz in March. How has it been for you to train with not only two station crews but two shuttle crews?

In my previous flights I only worked with one crew at a time, so this is a very new thing for me. But I think, the more the merrier. I am so glad to be able to work with four different crews, STS-119, STS-127, Expedition 18 and Expedition 19. And from the very beginning of training, I felt that I was perfectly integrated into the crew. This open mind and open dialogue really made this experience for me very positive.

Once you’ve become a part of the Expedition 19 crew will you be doing the same sorts of tasks as you did as a member of the Expedition 18 crew?

Right. But when Gennady and Mike Barratt arrive on a Soyuz spacecraft in March, I will have been there for about a month. So I hope, the transition from Expedition 18 to 19 could be smooth, and I need to make sure that it’s going to happen.

And then your ride home is the next space shuttle that visits, STS-127. Talk about the goals of that part of your mission and the tasks you’ll be working on during STS-127.

STS-127, also known as ISS Flight 2J/A, is the last of the three shuttle missions to assemble the Kibo module, so for Japan it’s a very important mission to complete the assembly of the Kibo module on the ISS. There are two components that will be brought up on the OV-105, Endeavour, on the flight. Those are the Exposed Facility of Kibo module and the exposed logistics pallet that will carry three different payloads. Together with crew, commanded by Mark Polansky, I’ll be involved in the robotics operations of the assembly of the final components of the Kibo.

You’re going to be there over a period where the Japanese sections of the space station are really going to be completed, and be up and running 100 percent.

I’m very fortunate. I feel just lucky to be able to serve as a crew member to complete the assembly of the International Space Station. When I became an astronaut 16 years ago I always dreamed of working on the assembly of the Kibo module and staying aboard International Space Station, so for me this is really a dream come true.

Of course, all of the nations that are building and operating the International Space Station have exploration plans that go beyond this particular vehicle. What is your philosophy about the future of human exploration of space, and the contribution that the International Space Station is going to make to that future?

I think for us to expand our frontiers in space, international cooperation is essential. The ISS project has demonstrated that this, it’s possible. But it was not easy; we had to overcome so many challenges to be able to work together as the partners of the International Space Station. I think future human space exploration will depend on the result of this International Space Station, and I think we have established a firm foundation of international cooperation in human space exploration. This is the way that we should continue our search for new frontiers in space.