New York
— Japanese astronaut Takao Doi helped install his country’s first major hardware at the international space station (ISS), a small storage facility for the massive Kibo laboratory module.

and six crewmates launched toward the station aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour March 11 during a predawn liftoff from NASA’s
Cape Canaveral

“I feel that this is truly the most exciting moment in my life,” said Doi, a veteran spaceflyer representing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). “This is a huge mission.”

During their marathon 16-day flight, which is scheduled to be the longest assembly mission ever conducted at the ISS, Doi and his STS-123 crewmates will install the new Japanese facility atop the station’s hub-like Harmony connecting node, deliver the two-armed Dextre maintenance robot for the Canadian Space Agency and swap out one member of the orbiting laboratory’s crew. But the personal highlight Doi looked forward to was opening the hatch to
‘s first habitable space facility.

“I understand that this is a really big event for
because it’s just like we’ll have a little Japanese land in space,” Doi, 53, told reporters March 3.

‘s storage module is the first of three separate components that will make up the country’s Kibo – Japanese for “Hope” – laboratory. In addition to the first compartment, known as the Japanese Logistics Module, a tour bus-sized main laboratory and a robotic-arm-equipped external science platform will be delivered on subsequent NASA shuttle flights.

The first module is a cylinder about 4 meters long, with a weight of about 8,387 kilograms. Designed to serve as an orbital attic for the main Kibo experiment module, the small logistics room is built to fit eight racks of equipment inside its 4-meter -wide interior.

“It may feel a little bit small inside,” said Doi, adding that when packed with equipment the module can be a tight squeeze. “It’s a little bit bigger than a [small] walk- in closet.”

United States
each have at least one astronaut working aboard the ISS at all times, and launch others on relatively regular flights into orbit aboard their respective shuttles and Soyuz spacecraft. Japanese astronauts, by comparison, have launched only once every few years, and even then only aboard foreign spacecraft, Doi said.

JAXA spaceflyerSoichi Noguchi flew aboard the NASA shuttle Discovery in July 2005 during the
agency’s first mission following the
tragedy. Prior to Noguchi, Japanese astronauts last flew in space during two shuttle flights in 2000, though the nation will have spaceflyers aboard NASA missions later this year to deliver Kibo’s main pressurized laboratory and to serve a long-duration stint aboard the ISS.

“It’s just like opening a big door,” Doi said of JAXA’sKibo space station lab, which will have its own
. “We are entering a new era of the space program.”

Endeavour’s launch will mark the second spaceflight for Doi who first flew aboard NASA’s
orbiter during the STS-87 mission in 1997.

“I feel very lucky that I’m assigned to this flight and I’ll be able to carry the first piece of the Japanese space station module and attach it with the shuttle’s robotic arm,” said Doi.

‘s astronaut corps in 1985. On STS-87 – also a long, 16-day mission – he became the first Japanese astronaut ever to perform a spacewalk.

“I was watching stars when I was a kid and I still like watching stars right now,” Doi said in a NASA interview, adding that watching Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon when he was 11 put him on the path to space. “I was hooked.”