Veteran Japanese astronaut to become SpaceX’s first international passenger

Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi during training at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Credit: SpaceX

Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi has traveled to the International Space Station on a space shuttle and a Russian capsule. He’s now gearing up to launch on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship, becoming only the third person to launch from Earth into orbit on three different types of spacecraft.

He will join a small club that, so far, only includes NASA astronauts Wally Schirra and John Young. Schirra flew on NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, while Young rocketed into orbit on two Gemini flights, two Apollo missions, and two space shuttle launches.

“It’s quite an honor to have the same experience like Mr. John Young did,” Noguchi said. “I still remember my astronaut candidate days, when I came here back in 1996, John Young was still flying T-38s. So I had the privilege to fly with him. So it’s definitely quite an honor.”

Noguchi flew to the space station in 2005 aboard the space shuttle Discovery on the first shuttle mission after the Columbia accident in 2003, in which seven astronauts died during re-entry. He launched again in 2009 on a Russian Soyuz rocket for a 164-day expedition on the space station.

“For me, the three different space vehicles also have three different methods of landing,” Noguchi told Spaceflight Now in a recent interview. “The first one was on a runway, with concrete, the second one was on the ground in Kazakhstan, and this one is in the ocean. So the three different types of landing will make it really interesting.”

Noguchi is flying to the space station under an arrangement between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. NASA provides rides to the station for Japanese, European, and Canadian astronauts in exchange for the partner agencies paying their share of the space station’s operating costs.

“It’s kind of interesting that in Japan, we don’t have our own space vehicle, but based on the international cooperation, we are able to execute this type of big milestone,” Noguchi said. “Of course, there are a lot more people behind me. So this is just the beginning, but we are happy to witness this historic flight.”

Within a few years, the Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, NASA’s Orion deep space vehicle, and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft will all be flying with astronauts to destinations in Earth orbit and beyond. That means more space fliers will soon have the opportunity to launch from Earth and land on three or more types of vehicles, joining Schirra, Young, and Noguchi.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This list doesn’t include Apollo astronauts who also launched from the moon inside NASA’s lunar module, in addition to launching from Earth on different rockets.)

Soichi Noguchi inside the white room at pad 39B on July 26, 2005, before boarding the space shuttle Discovery for his first spaceflight. Credit: NASA

Noguchi, a 55-year-old aeronautical engineer with two space missions under his belt, has logged more than 177 days in orbit to date. He’s set to kick off his third spaceflight Sunday, beginning an expedition planned to last nearly six months.

Noguchi will join NASA commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Shannon Walker on the Crew Dragon capsule when it blasts off Sunday night from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Liftoff of the Crew Dragon on top of a Falcon 9 rocket is set for 7:27 p.m. EST Sunday (0027 GMT Monday), weather permitting.

Noguchi and his crewmates are setting off on a six-month mission aboard the space station, culminating with a parachute-assisted splashdown in early May on their Crew Dragon spacecraft, which the astronauts named “Resilience.”

The launch this weekend will mark the first regular crew rotation flight — known as Crew-1 — to the space station with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, following a successful two-person test flight to the station earlier this year.

In the future, four-person crews will be the norm on Crew Dragon missions. NASA also has a contract with Boeing to fly Starliner crew capsules to the space station.

NASA spent about $5 billion to help SpaceX and Boeing develop the Crew Dragon and Starliner systems, according to Phil McAlister, the agency’s director of commercial spaceflight. The companies also invested their own money into the program through public-private partnerships with NASA.

Noguchi, who was a Boy Scout when he was growing up in Japan, also has experience with different types of spacesuits.

He wore NASA’s orange launch and entry suit on his shuttle flight, and then wore Russia’s Sokol pressure suit when he launched and landed on the Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX’s flight suit serves a similar purpose to the shuttle and Sokol suits, providing a survivable environment for astronaut in case the Crew Dragon spacecraft depressurizes in flight.

Soichi Noguchi smiles and gives a thumbs-up after landing on a Soyuz capsule June 2, 2010. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“It’s a bit different,” Noguchi said of the SpaceX pressure suit. “The good thing about SpaceX is it’s simple. The bad thing is it’s simple … It’s very simple, so there are less points of failure, and it’s very lightweight, and that’s great.

“Because of the simpleness, there are sometimes little shortcomings,” he told Spaceflight Now. “There are certain things you cannot really do, like depressurizing the suit is tough compared to Soyuz and the shuttle. But the simplicity is the beauty, and it’s lightweight, and overall it’s a nice design. I like it.”

Noguchi praised SpaceX’s “speed and flexibility” as the Dragon crew trained at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, near Los Angeles.

“Everything was close by, meaning that during the training, if I had some deep questions, technical questions, the engineer who created those displays was right across the floor, or the technician who actually built it was one floor down,” Noguchi said. “So we can actually go talk to the source of that information, and if sometimes we need to change the displays, sometimes we need to change position of a pump, and with good reason, they can adapt to those changes.

“It’s not so uncommon that within a day, they would change the display, or in a few days that would completely change the hardware,” Noguchi said. “That speed and flexibility I really liked about SpaceX.”

Noguchi said he ran into “inevitable” restrictions related to export control restrictions related to U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR.

“I’m a foreign national, so there are a lot of ITAR issues,” Noguchi said. “Those information and technical exchange agreement issues are always there. It’s inevitable.”

Export control regulations limit access to satellite hardware and technical drawings for foreign nationals.

“I try not to be considered as a spy, and also I would like to get the information to become a safe operator,” Noguchi said. “So getting a diagram, or a drawing, or a paper is really tough. But, of course, SpaceX and also my crew are really helping me to understand and become a good operator.

“To safely operate a complex vehicle like Crew Dragon, we need to have appropriate system understanding, and in that sense, SpaceX was pretty cooperative with trying to dodge the bullet, to make sure we don’t violate those ITAR rules,” Noguchi said.

Noguchi said he encountered similar headwinds when training for his Soyuz mission in Russia.

“For the Russian Soyuz, yes, we were constantly dealing with those issues,” he said. “But with Russia, we have a long lasting relationship, so we know how to dodge the bullet. We know the safe thing to do.

“Compared to SpaceX, it’s obviously a new thing, a new challenge for them,” Noguchi said. “Obviously, I am the first student for them other than an American, so they tried to make sure that we — SpaceX and I — don’t violate the regulations, and at the same time they can train me as a valid operator. So that was a challenge.”

European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet is training to fly on the Crew-2 mission on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule next year.

“Fortunately, after me, we have other foreign astronauts in training so hopefully they have a much smoother experience with SpaceX, and Boeing in the same manner,” Noguchi said.

“We obviously are being cautious,” said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight division. “When he had flown before (on the space shuttle), it was on a system that we owned. The other thing is the insight on your vehicle is also dependent on what the crew member needs to do.”

Hopkins and Glover began training to fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2018, while Noguchi and Walker joined the crew earlier this year. Hopkins and Glover, the commander and pilot, are trained to take over manual control of the spacecraft if its autopilot system runs into problems during docking or undocking at the space station.

Noguchi and Walker are more akin to passengers during the Crew Dragon’s launch and landing.

“I think we’ll just have to continue to work through it,” Lueders said of training international astronauts. “In talking to the crew, we’ve had the discussion … Are you getting the training you need to be able to do what you need to do?”

Lueders said NASA and JAXA managers were satisfied with the training of the Dragon crew, including Noguchi. JAXA’s representative gave their “go” to proceed with the mission during a Flight Readiness Review Tuesday.

“We’ve been working with JAXA for a while, and I think it was pretty evident in the way they were able to say ‘go’ on Tuesday,” Lueders said.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.