Astronaut Koichi Wakata will lead a six-man crew aboard the International Space Station, becoming the first Japanese to serve as commander.

Wakata, who is currently in his long-duration stay on board the ISS, succeeded Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov in an inauguration ceremony aboard the space station on Sunday, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Kotov, along with cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, will return to Earth on Tuesday on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, completing their 166-day mission at the space station. Three new members are expected to arrive at the ISS this month.

As the 39th ISS Commander, Wakata will oversee the two-month mission before returning to Earth on May 14.

JAXA astronaut Wakata will take control of the space craft and will be responsible of crisis management, including securing the safety of crew members in the event of an emergency such as a fire or meteorite strike.

Naoki Okumura, president of the Japanese space agency, lauded Wakata’s succession as ISS Commander. “I believe that Wakata’s assumption of the ISS Commander results from his versatile skills and leadership he has performed through the ground training and the on-orbit experiences, and also from the trust the international society places in Japan which Japan has built in the course of the space development,” Okumura said in a press statement.

Wakata has been on a six-month mission at the ISS since launching into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrom in Kazakhstan in November.

He has handled the release of a small satellite from the Japanese space experiment module called Kibo, took videos of Comet ISON, which came closest to Earth in November, and conducted a number of experiments in biology, medicine and material engineering.

By Maesie Bertumen

Image: Sebra /