Casual Conversations with Ex-ISS Commander Dr. Koichi Wakata

Ex-ISS Commander Dr. Koichi Wakata at ISS.
Photo Credits [HERE].

(Originally published at sister website: [HERE]. Re-posted with permission)

After downing a few glass of horrible beer at this year's PNST Symposium, I looked around to see what Dr. Koichi Wakata, an engineer and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut, was up to. The veteran astronaut, who has clocked in a whopping 11 months in space while being only the third non-American, non-Russian to command the International Space Station (ISS), was surprisingly on his own. All I had to do now was to summon the slightly drunk Gurkhali courage to walk up to him and start a casual conversation. And that's what I did. Here's a rephrased manuscript of what I think the exchange looked like:


Q. When you hear the word Nepal, what's the first thing that pops up in your head?
Dr. Wakata:
Lovely country, always wanted to visit but never had the chance to. In fact, when I was a student at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, I used to frequent a restaurant/pub owned by a Nepalese. Had great food. The best part is that I met my wife at that very same pub for the first time.

Q. That is very interesting. Your wife's Japanese right?
Dr. Wakata:
She's German but speaks fluent Japanese. You had to speak Japanese that time. Btw, how's the transition from Nepal to Japan?

Dr. Wakata met his wife Steffi at a Nepali restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan
Photo Credits [HERE]

A. I was in Korea before coming here and for me, the biggest change was that basic things worked. Just worked. It's the same here. There's 24 hour reliable water, electricity, gas. We grew up preparing for the national exams under heavy power cuts and to suddenly find yourself with unlimited basic resources really helped. So the first thing was a sense of appreciation for little things that most Koreans or Japanese would take for granted. 

Dr. Wakata:
I see your point. When I was on the expedition at ISS, I had one glass of water to work with. One glass....something like this (he points out). That was all for washing, cleaning, brushing. Of course, we were allowed to drink as much as we wanted but the water was an incredibly scarce resource. After my expedition was over and I was back to earth (Note: imagine how many people can say that) and I was showering, all I could think of was: that water is all going down the drain! I have an incredible sense of appreciation for the things we used to take for granted before. 

Also using the bathroom. I mean, have you ever seen those ISS bathrooms? (I say no) It's very difficult to do your business. Earth is a breeze. 

Dr.Wakata doing a tour of the ISS bathroom
Photo Credits [HERE]

Q. I had an itch to ask this question but never had the chance to; In your opinion, what was the most difficult training regime that an astronaut has to go through?
Dr. Wakata:
Mountaineering. [Some] weeks long expeditions with six people climbing a 4000m mountain. For a Nepali that might not mean much (laughs). However, we were completely on our own with no backup support and no tracking. We were only allowed to use fire unless it was for cooking. I existed because the other team members existed and vice versa. The whole point was to hone the team work skills.

Q. As I understand, Astronauts are these Type-A, alpha male/female personalities. How do you manage to work as a team when you have everyone with similar, very strong characteristics?
Dr. Wakata:
That's possibly the most difficult thing to cope up with. Training(s) are fine compared to personal differences that could cause problems. Especially in a place as isolated as space. That is why there's always teams of three, never two. This being said, your whole existence relied on the other person. There was no choice but to get along.

Q. The obvious next question would be; where there any personal differences or fights that happened in ISS?
Dr. Wakata:
(laughs) Not under my control. As long as I was there, there was no issue.  

Q. What about the differences in language? (Question from a friend who had joined in)
Dr. Wakata:
At ISS, there are two official languages; English and Russian. I had to learn Russian during the training. I was flown into Russia, stayed with a family for six weeks drinking vodka shots every night. Everyday was an eight hour language training. Was brutal.

Photo Credits [HERE]

Q. What other training do astronauts have to go through?
Dr. Wakata:
Let me see...there's the mountaineering, six weeks of kayaking in the sea. You basically find an island on the way, set up camp, sleep and then start all over again. You have six hour long underwater exercises to prepare for space walking. And those 4G exercises where you have to perform a task under such high accelerative forces.

(Note: as the I remember, the length of the training from selection to qualification is four years. So there should be much more)

Q. How are you graded?
Dr. Wakata:
For isolated training, astronaut grade one another.

Q. What if you are not honest?
(laughs again) It's obvious who the culprit is if someone is dishonest. So people don't.

Q. One more final question; What did your first hour look like at the ISS?
Dr. Wakata:
That's a good question. Wake up, do a routine check as a commander. Check your mates. Read the report, check for faults, make sure everything is in place.

Then head over for No. 2.

ISS changes it's orbit to a higher orbit to dodge debris
Photo Credits [HERE]

Q. A natural follow up question would be; where there any emergency cases?
Dr. Wakata:
Debris. Actually we have to do a few debris maneuvering. I have dodged a couple of them and it's pretty cool. You see the debris pass by. What we do is raise the orbit so that we don't waste the limited propulsion that we have. Since ISS orbit decay's over time, we buy ourselves more time by doing so.  Worst case though, we can have astronauts to stay in the soyuz lifeboat in case something goes wrong.

A huge thank-you to ex-commander Dr. Wakata for being such a great sport, frank in conversation and down-to-real-earth guy. My only regret is that I didn't ask what it's like to fart in zero gravity, but I will save that for next time.


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