By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The first Japanese astronaut to live aboard the International Space Station is preparing for a return flight, this time to serve as commander, officials said on Wednesday.
Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is due to leave in November with a pair of veteran astronauts from the United States and Russia.
Wakata, 50, is expected to take command of the orbital research outpost in March, marking the first time a Japanese astronaut will lead a human space mission.
"It means a lot to Japan to have its own representative to command the International Space Station," Wakata told a news conference broadcast from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"It's a big milestone for Japan ... to have this experience," he said.
In 2009, Wakata became the first astronaut from Japan to live aboard the $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth.
Japan, one of 15 nations participating in the project, provided the station's largest and most elaborate laboratory, named Kibo, as well as cargo resupply ships.
Wakata, who was part of two missions on NASA's now-retired space shuttles, is training for his fourth flight along with NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, both 53.
Mastracchio, a veteran of three shuttle missions and one of NASA's most experienced spacewalkers, will be making his first long-duration flight. Tyurin will be living aboard the station for a third time.
Command of the station typically rotates between a U.S. astronaut and Russian cosmonaut. In 2009, Belgium astronaut Frank De Winne became the first European to command the station. Canada's first commander, Chris Hadfield, was in charge from March until May.
Wakata, a native of Saitama, Japan, holds a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, a master's in applied mechanics and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from Kyushu University. Before being selected as an astronaut in 1992, he worked as an aircraft structural engineer for Japan Airlines.
Wakata's first two spaceflights, in January 1996 and October 2000, were aboard NASA space shuttles. He was Japan's first live-aboard space station resident from March to July 2009. Upon returning to the station in November, Wakata will serve as a flight engineer before taking over command in March.
(Reporting by Tom Brown,; Editing by Stacey Joyce)