August 1, 2009

Japanese Astronaut Just Wants Fresh Sushi And Fresh Shorts

Yesterday at 10:48 am, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata was reintroduced to some of his favorite things - gravity, organic life, sushi and underpants, following 138 days of floating in space.

After circling Earth 2,208 times and completing a series of projects on the International Space Station, Wakata and his 6 fellow crew members touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

While trying to get used to gravity again, Wakata told reporters, "I still feel a little shaky when I walk, but I'm feeling great."

For his 46th birthday today he plans to celebrate by "having a lot of sushi and birthday cake."

As Japan's first long-duration astronaut, Wakata spent the majority of his mission carrying out experiments in the International Space Station's Kibo science laboratory.

He was also conducting an experiment of sorts as he revealed that he had been wearing the same pair of prototype underpants for a month to test their ability to withstand space life.

"My space station crew mates never complained," he told an interviewer on Thursday.

Designed to be anti-static, flame-resistant, odor-eating, bacteria-killing, and water-absorbent, the underpants are part of a project aimed at making sure that future space travelers have optimal room in their suitcases.

"We're going to go beyond the Moon some day, and little things like this will seem like really, really big things when you're far away from Mother Earth," said Mike Suffredini, manager of NASA's space station program.

Wakata's special space wear was designed by the Japanese space agency, Jaxa. He also sported socks, T-shirts, trousers and leggings, which were all made of cotton and polyester with a futuristic-looking silver coating.

Friday's touchdown brought Endeavour's successful 16-day assembly mission to the ISS to its close.

There were initial concerns about early morning thunder storms, coastal rain showers and fog around the landing site possibly forcing shuttle commander Mark Polanski and his crew to put their return off until Saturday.

Fortunately, they did not have to change their plans and the conditions improved to allow Endeavour to make its way back home.

"Welcome home, congratulations on a superb mission from beginning to end," said mission control, as the shuttle came to a final stop on the Florida runway.

"That's what it's all about," said Polansky, who shared the controls with pilot Doug Hurley for the landing after a "fantastic mission."

"We are happy to be home," Polansky said.

The Endeavour mission involved astronauts delivering and installing the last major piece of the billion dollar Japanese research complex, which can boast being the largest and most capable of the station's three primary science modules.

President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Keiji Tachikawa, applauded the Endeavour crew for completing the Kibo installation.

"Completing the assembly of all the Kibo elements makes possible various experiments," he said.

"It's extremely important to our country. In addition to gaining valuable knowledge from experiments, Wakata's mission advances our country's future manned space exploration."

They fastened the new open platform for external science experiments to the primary research enclosure and a chamber for storing equipment that was launched last year.

The platform was also decked out with an X-ray telescope, environmental monitor and a communications device to link the space station lab with Japan's mission control in Tsukuba.

There were four astronauts carrying out the five long spacewalks that successfully equipped the station's oldest of solar power modules with new storage batteries and stowed away an array of large external spare parts.

All of this was to make sure that the station remains functional after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet scheduled for 2010.

With 13 astronauts, the ISS saw a record number of astronauts aboard the 220-mile high orbital outpost, with crewmembers representing Europe, Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States. It was also the first time that all of the stations partners were represented at the same time.

"It was truly an impressive demonstration of international cooperation all throughout this mission," said Benoit Marcotte, the Canadian Space Agency's director general of operations.

Though the large number of astronauts was something to be celebrated, it also posed problems of its own.  One of the station's two toilets broke during the mission, along with another device that cleans the breathing air of carbon dioxide.

"Though people think flying on a space station is maybe somewhat routine, it's tremendously challenging," said Polanski.

"You are in a very, very unforgiving environment. Seemingly innocuous things become huge impediments," he said.

"If you have a broken toilet, you don't just run down to Lowe's or Home Depot, or call the plumber. You have to take care of it."

American Tim Kopra was left at the orbital outpost, where he joined five Russian, Canadian and European astronauts.

Kopra's first trip to space is will end as the shuttle Discovery returns in early September.

In the meantime, NASA is getting the shuttle Discovery ready its August 25 mission that will last 11 days.

On its mission, Discovery's astronauts will take research equipment, medical gear and other supplies to the orbital outpost. Seven missions are left before the shuttle fleet retires.


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