Russia returns to space tourism as Japanese tycoon soars to ISS

Russia will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday to mark Moscow’s return to the now booming space tourism sector after a decade-long hiatus.

One of Japan’s richest men, Maezawa, 46, will take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan accompanied by his assistant Yozo Hirano.

On Sunday morning, their Soyuz spacecraft with a Japanese flag and an “MZ” logo for Maezawa’s name was moved to the launch pad in unusually humid weather for Baikonur, a reporter from Agence France-Presse noted ( AFP).

The mission will end a decade-long hiatus in Russia’s space tourism program, which has not accepted tourists since Canada’s Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté in 2009.

However, in a historic first, Russian space agency Roscosmos sent actress Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko to the ISS in October to film scenes from the first film in orbit in a bid to beat a rival Hollywood project.

Maezawa’s launch comes at a difficult time for Russia as its space industry struggles to stay relevant and keep up with Western competitors in the modern space race.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s US company SpaceX last year ended Russia’s monopoly on manned flights to the ISS after delivering astronauts to the orbiting lab in his Crew Dragon capsule.

However, this also freed up seats on Russian Soyuz rockets previously purchased by NASA, allowing Moscow to accept paying tourists like Maezawa.

Their three-seater Soyuz spacecraft will be piloted by Alexander Misurkin, a 44-year-old Russian cosmonaut who has already flown two missions to the ISS.

The couple will spend 12 days aboard the space station where they plan to document their trip for Maezawa’s YouTube channel with more than 750,000 subscribers.

The mogul is the founder of Japan’s largest online fashion mall and the country’s 30th richest man, according to Forbes.

“I’m almost crying because of my impressions, it’s so impressive,” Maezawa said in late November after arriving in Baikonur for the final days of preparation.

Maezawa and Hirano have spent the last few months training in Star City, a city outside of Moscow that has groomed generations of Soviet and Russian cosmonauts.

“The hardest workout ever”

Maezawa said exercising on the rotating chair “almost looked like torture.”

“It’s the hardest training ever,” he tweeted at the end of November.

So far, Russia has sent seven self-funded tourists to space in partnership with US company Space Adventures. Maezawa and Hirano will be the first from Japan.

Maezawa’s launch comes at the end of a year that has become a milestone for amateur space travel.

In September, SpaceX performed a historic flight taking the first fully civilian crew on a three-day journey around Earth orbit on a mission called Inspiration4.

Blue Origin, the company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, flew two missions beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Passengers included 90-year-old Star Trek star William Shatner and Bezos himself.

Soon after, billionaire Richard Branson traveled aboard his Virgin Galactic spacecraft which also offered a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.

These trips mark the start of opening up the space to non-professionals with other launches announced for the future.

In 2023, SpaceX plans to take eight amateur astronauts around the moon on a Maezawa-funded space flight, which will also be on board.

Russia has also said it will take more tourists to the ISS during future Soyuz launches and also plans to offer one of them a spacewalk.

For Russia, retaining its title as a leading space nation is a matter of national pride stemming from its achievements in Soviet times amid rivalry with the United States.

The Soviets invented a number of firsts in space: the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first spacewalk, to name a few – a few.

But in recent years, Russia’s space program has suffered setbacks, including corruption scandals and botched launches, and has had to contend with cutbacks in public funding.

The industry remains dependent on Soviet design technology and although new projects have been announced, such as a mission to Venus, their timing and feasibility remain unclear.

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