Japanese Astronaut Craves Sushi
Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 19/20 flight engineer, looks through a window in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station in May 2009.
Credit: NASA

After more than four months in space, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata is eagerly looking forward to the taste of fresh sushi and other comfort foods when he returns to Earth Friday aboard the shuttle Endeavour.

Wakata, 45, has been living aboard the International Space Station as Japan?s first long-term resident of the orbital laboratory. He and six other astronauts are due to land in Florida tomorrow to wrap up a marathon 16-day flight aboard the shuttle Endeavour.

But for Wakata, who launched to the station aboard a different shuttle in March, it?s been 4 1/2 months since he tasted any kind of fresh food, let alone his favorites.

?I?d like to eat sushi and cold noodles,? he told reporters before Endeavour left the station on Tuesday. There?s no shower or bath on the station either, so Wakata said he?s also looking forward to taking a dip in a hot springs after returning to Earth.

A native of Saitoma, Japan, Wakata is the first astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to spend months living aboard the station and formed part of the outpost?s first full six-person crew. He is wrapping up his second spaceflight and did take a taste of home with him for the long trip, even if he had leave his beloved sushi on Earth.

?I was very fortunate to bring 28 JAXA provided foods with me,? Wakata said of his Japanese space food - which included salmon rice balls, curries and three types of noodles. ?That was a very big psychological support for me.?

Wakata?s stay in space was extended by a month due to delays launching Endeavour toward the space station. He was replaced by NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who remained behind when the shuttle left the orbiting lab and will return to Earth during NASA?s next shuttle flight.

Real science, wacky experiments

During his flight, Wakata watched over Japan?s gleaming $1 billion Kibo module, a giant laboratory the size of a tour bus that has its own attic-like storage room and robotic arm. He also helped outfit the lab?s new porch, which Endeavour astronauts delivered during their mission.

But some of Wakata?s experiments were less formal. As part of a program to reach out to Japan?s public, he performed a number of tests to demonstrate what life is like in space.

Among the requests: show how astronauts fold clothes, shoot water guns, put in eye drops and ride a ?flying carpet? in the weightlessness of space. He also tried his hand at traditional Japanese radio gymnastics, and spent much of his time wearing specially tailored ?J-wear? - space underwear engineered not to smell.

?In the last two months, I was wearing this underwear and there was no smell, and nobody complained about it,? Wakata said in a televised interview. ?So I think this new J-wear is very good for myself and my colleagues.?

Mission Control woke Wakata and his shuttle crewmates this morning at 2:02 a.m. EDT (0602 GMT) with the song "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher, a tune specially selected for the Japanese astronaut.

Thank you very much and it is another wonderful day in space," Wakata said.

Gravity?s heavy embrace

After living in weightlessness for months, Wakata said he?s confident in his body?s readiness to once more feel the tug of Earth?s gravity. To ease that transition, astronauts will set up a special recumbent seat on Endeavour?s middeck that will allow him to return to Earth in a reclined position, rather than an upright seat.

NASA officials said Wakata earned a reputation for fixing broken exercise equipment during his flight. Wakata added that he?s worked hard to stay in good shape while in space.

?I have been eating regularly and exercising,? Wakata said during the flight. ?I feel very fit.?

Wakata and his crewmates plan to deploy a pair of small satellites from Endeavour?s payload bay today as well as check the shuttle?s flight control systems in preparation for its planned landing on Friday. The astronauts performed five challenging spacewalks to install the Kibo lab?s new porch, replace solar array batteries and deliver vital spare parts during their 11-day stay at the station.

Wakata said he will miss life aboard space station and inside Kibo, but is looking forward to seeing Earth up close again, as well as his wife and son. The sight of the planet from orbit, he said, is one he will never forget.

?I have never tired of seeing or watching the Earth,? Wakata said. ?We have to protect our environment.?

SPACE.com is providing continuous coverage of STS-127 with reporter Clara Moskowitz and senior editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.