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Koichi Wakata’s eyes light up at the memory. “It was beautiful. All those flashing lights in different colours. They looked like gems, like diamonds.” Given his status as one of Japan’s most respected astronauts, it would be easy to assume that Wakata was recalling an outer-space experience. The memory, however, is more mundane: he is describing his happiness at the age of six, when a pilot showed him around the cockpit of a plane.

It was the start of a lifelong fascination with all things airborne. Fast-forward four decades, and 48-year-old Wakata is one of an elite band of 11 Japanese science astronauts and the chief of the Operations Branch of the International Space Station (iss) at Nasa. Wakata has won global praise for accomplishments clocked up during three missions, totalling 159 days, 10 hours and 46 minutes in space. Now he is preparing for the biggest one yet: a stint as Japan’s first commander of iss for a six-month trip in late 2013.

In person, Wakata is open and friendly with an American accent honed during years of Nasa training in Houston and an astronaut’s penchant for precision (he recalls event timings down to the minute). Beyond his salaryman outfit, there is a clue to his profession: a hi-tech, multi-buttoned digital watch which, he confirms, works in space. On the third floor of the Jaxa (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) offices in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district, Wakata explains his early obsession with space. “When I was five years old, I saw the Apollo lunar landing,” he says. “I had a strong longing to fly in space, but the only astronauts were from the former Soviet Union or the US. As a Japanese, even at the age of five, I felt it was beyond my reach.”

It was during regular childhood flights from his native Saitama, north of Tokyo, to visit relatives in southern Kyushu, that he got that cockpit tour. Wakata – whose father was a civil engineer, mother a telecommunications worker – says: “It was at the end of a flight, while waiting for a wheelchair for my grandmother. The pilot asked if we’d like to see the cockpit. It was beautiful. I was determined that one day I would make or fly planes.”

Wakata’s life path seemed comfortably mapped out after studying mechanics and aviation and landing a structural-engineer position at Japan Airlines. “I’d dreamt of this job. Every day was great, I really loved what I was doing. But then one day I read in the newspaper an announcement about the Japanese astronaut selection. My childhood longing to fly to space was revived.” Nine months of intensive academic, physical and psychological tests later, Wakata, then 30, was named as the only successful candidate. With characteristic modesty, he says: “It was like winning the lottery. I don’t know why I was selected, I was just lucky.”

Three years later, in 1996, he blasted off on a nine-day sts-72 Endeavour mission. “It was early morning, 4.41am Florida time,” he says. “The acceleration was really big. In eight and a half minutes we were in zero gravity. I saw the Earth for the first time from outside. The background was pitch-black space and the Earth looked like a bright, vivid, live oasis. You never get bored of that view.”

It was during his third and most recent trip in 2009 that Wakata completed the assembly of Japan’s acclaimed Kibo laboratory on iss. Many scientific experiments have since been carried out in Kibo (“hope” in Japanese) – from looking for new flu vaccinations using protein-crystal growth to solar-ray research.

Wakata’s less-technical tasks were no less high-profile. In a series of tasks set by the public, he attempted to fold laundry at zero gravity, use eyedrops and travel on a “flying carpet” (“That was difficult. I had to stick Velcro to my feet”). He also wore “space pants”. Laughing at the memory, Wakata says: “I must correct Wikipedia as it says I wore the same underpants for two months without changing – that’s not true.

“I wore the same clothes for only two hours every day while exercising. Despite sweating, they stayed dry and didn’t smell. Jaxa sent similar clothing to the trapped Chilean miners.” He also undertook art experiments – filming light paths of an illuminated spinning top and photographing the moonrise, which was turned into music. “What’s unique about Japanese utilisation of space is that it’s not only about science and technology, although that’s the core. Jaxa also uses space for education, art and commercial application.”

Long periods in space are tempered, says Wakata, by speaking regularly to his wife and son in the US – as well as eating. “I was lucky enough to take 28 kinds of Japanese space food last time. So far we don’t have sashimi, but we have salmon, curry, noodles, seaweed soup. It’s a big psychological boost every day.”

Wakata is sanguine about the risks. “There are things we need to do to survive as a species. Exploring human frontiers is an act of survival that overrides the risks.” He is also positive about space tourism: “This is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight and we are at a turning point. We can expand space access dramatically by having commercial entities provide more opportunities. “I welcome it because the more people go to space and enjoy the view of the beautiful planet, the more people will have a new value in life as citizens of the Earth.”

For Wakata, it’s not just about technical accomplishment, leadership, being a team player (or flying on magic carpets) – the most crucial force in becoming an astronaut is simple: “You must have this strong desire, to go to space. There are many ways to get there, but the desire to go there is perhaps most important.” And this is something six-year-old Wakata would surely have agreed with.

A space odyssey

Koichi Wakata’s CV

1963
Born in Saitama, Japan
1987
Aeronautical Bachelor of Science degree from Kyushu University
1989
Master of Science degree in applied mechanics from Kyushu University, before starting work as a structural engineer for Japan Airlines
1992
Selected as an astronaut candidate
1993
Certified as an astronaut
1996
First space trip
2000
Second space mission on STS-92 Discovery, assembling the ISS
2004
Doctorate in aerospace engineering from Kyushu University
2009
Four and a half months at the ISS in charge of Jaxa scientific experiments. Completed assembly of Kibo module.
2010
Appointed chief of ISS Operations Branch in Nasa and manager of Jaxa Astronaut Group
2011
Trains for fourth space mission

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