With the appointment of Koichi Wakata as commander of the International Space Station, many in Japan's space community eagerly anticipate seeing the first Japanese astronaut take the post.
A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a crew of astronauts including Wakata, 50, successfully docked at the ISS on Thursday. Wakata's appointment as ISS commander from March to May shows that his performance and Japan's contribution to both scientific-technological and financial aspects of such space activities have achieved international stature.
The next task Japan will face is how to predict the future of the ISS and what other space projects are on the horizon following the possible end of ISS operations.
Long time coming
"We finally got a chance to have a commander, making Japan one of the countries recognised as advanced in space projects," said Yoshiyuki Hasegawa, Executive Director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The predecessor of the ISS, Space Station Freedom, was proposed in 1984 by then US President Ronald Reagan. It was originally a project to counter the Soviet Union's space station Mir, but it achieved concrete form in the mid-1990s when the United States and Russia, both suffering from financial difficulty, were able to meet halfway after the collapse of Soviet Union.
Since astronauts started staying at the ISS in 2000, the post of commander has been filled by 30 Russians or Americans, one Canadian and one European.
Japan has sent eight astronauts for a total of 16 flights, logging a total of 734 days in space, according to JAXA, the most following the United States and Russia. Astronaut Kimiya Yui has been selected to be a crew member of an ISS expedition in 2015.
Japan has also made significant technical contributions, including the experimental module Kibo, and Konotori, an unmanned cargo vessel that successfully carried supplies to the ISS four times in a row.
Regarding financial support, the nation provided about ¥710 billion until 2010. Although the figure is far below the United States' ¥10 trillion, it is nearly the same as the total amount provided by Europe.
Some believe the appointment of a Japanese astronaut as commander has been a long time coming. "It's a bit late, considering how much Japan has contributed [to the ISS projects]," a JAXA official said.
"Through astronaut Wakata's efforts and our technical capabilities, we may see a second Japanese commander in the late 2010s," said Hasegawa with enthusiasm.