Astronaut Koichi Wakata: Private Sector to Drive Progress in Space; What is Japan’s Role Going Forward?

Courtesy of Axiom Space, Inc.
Astronaut Koichi Wakata has been employed by Axiom Space, Inc. in the United States.

WASHINGTON — Astronaut Koichi Wakata said that activities in low Earth orbit will be led by the private sector as countries focus on lunar exploration, during an online interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. Wakata also said that he wants to contribute to the development of manned space activities by working to build up the private sector.


Wakata, 60, retired from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in March and joined U.S. space company Axiom Space, Inc. the following month.


Success of private companies

– The Yomiuri Shimbun: Why did you choose a private-sector company as your next step?

Koichi Wakata: I worked as an astronaut and engaged in administrative and other various activities [at JAXA] for many years and was trying to figure out how to make the most of the experience I had amassed after retiring.

The Japanese and U.S. governments in April agreed to send [two] Japanese astronauts to the moon’s surface as part of the U.S.-led Artemis lunar exploration program. Countries will focus their efforts on exploring the moon and the more distant Mars. Meanwhile, the International Space Station, jointly run by Japan, the United States, Russia, European nations and Canada, will cease operations in 2030.

Axiom has a contract with NASA to connect its module facility to the ISS. The module is scheduled to be launched in 2026. The company has a plan to make [the facility] its own space station [after separating it from the ISS].

In the coming post-ISS era, activities in low Earth orbit will be led by the private sector, and their success will be the key to all manned space activities. I reached the conclusion that I’ll be able to contribute to the sustainable development of manned space activities by joining Axiom, a leading space company, to assist the private sector.

– Yomiuri: What are your responsibilities at Axiom?

Wakata: I work as an astronaut and as the chief technology officer for the Asia-Pacific region. As CTO, I’m responsible for a wide range of operations in the region related to spaceflight and space experiments, including customer acquisition and fundraising.

I also communicate with engineers about the development of Axiom’s space station from the perspective of an astronaut. I worked on the construction of the ISS as a JAXA astronaut, and I’m doing the same kind of things at Axiom.

I’m also participating in the development of a spacesuit commissioned by NASA for lunar activities, and I sometimes wear it in tests. It has some connection to Japan’s future lunar exploration as it’s very likely that the outfits will be worn by Japanese astronauts.

– Yomiuri: You have completed five spaceflights, which is a record for a Japanese astronaut. Do you want to fly more?

Wakata: Axiom has three astronauts, two who used to be with NASA and myself. The other two astronauts have served as commanders on private space missions to the ISS. I have been working hard to maintain and improve my qualifications as an astronaut in order to also work as a commander.

I’ve always had the goal of being an active [astronaut] for a lifetime, and that has not changed. I want to go to space as many times as possible whenever I have a chance.

Japan’s role

– Yomiuri: When you were the commander of the ISS in 2014, tensions between the United States and Russia were raised after Russia seized and annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine.

Wakata: At the time, I was on the ISS with [two] U.S. astronauts and [three] Russian cosmonauts. We were aware of what was happening on Earth through the news. We told each other that we were the only human beings not on Earth. What we were doing to expand humanity’s sphere of activity through our work on the ISS was of great significance. We all shared that understanding.

I wanted to bring the team together with the Japanese spirit of “wa no kokoro” [harmony]. I was very busy as the commander during the day but would join the Russian or the American dinner table to have dinner together with them. I tried to make sure we all got together for meals on weekends.

I understand that there are many [difficult] geopolitical situations today as well. When I flew to the ISS on the U.S. Crew Dragon commercial spacecraft with [two] U.S. astronauts and [a] Russian cosmonaut in October 2022, I went into the mission thinking again that the best thing astronauts could do was cooperate with each other and achieve results on the ISS.

– Yomiuri: What changes have you noticed since you were selected as an astronaut candidate in 1992?

Wakata: It was the year Mamoru Mohri became Japan’s first astronaut when he went into space aboard a U.S. space shuttle. Since that time, I feel that Japan has become a trusted partner of the world.

Japan was responsible for the development of the Kibo laboratory module as well as the development and operation of the unmanned cargo transfer vehicle Kounotori on the ISS. It has been a difficult road, but Japan has been living up to the expectations of countries around the world.

I believe that it is Japan’s role, as a country aiming to continue to thrive on scientific and technological advances, to contribute to the world’s manned space activities by making use of the technology and human resources it has cultivated.

Significance of manned activities

– Yomiuri: What do manned space activities mean to you?

Wakata: I have been asking that question myself for 30 years. I believe space activities contribute greatly to the enrichment of humanity.

New knowledge from research and other activities in space enriches life on Earth. I also believe that expanding the scope of our activities beyond the Earth, and refining technology for that purpose, is part of crisis management for the long-term survival of the human race.

I think, the further away from home we are, the stronger our unity as a species becomes, just like Japanese nationals living abroad help each other and become more closely connected. I came to believe this as I spent time with my colleagues on the ISS. I hope our sense of unity will grow even stronger when we embark on full-scale manned exploration of the moon and Mars.


About Axiom Space

Axiom Space, Inc. is a startup company founded in 2016. Michael Suffredini, a former manager of NASA’s ISS program, serves as the chief executive officer of the Houston-based company, which has about 900 employees. In April 2022, the company conducted the first privately led space flight to the ISS. Japan’s Mitsui & Co. is one of the company’s investors.