Russia to send Japanese tycoon to ISS in exchange for space tourism
On Wednesday, Russia will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the International Space Station in a move marking Moscow’s return to the booming space tourism business after a decade-long hiatus.
One of Japan’s richest men, Maezawa, 46, will fly 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 wet weather for Baikonur, an AFP reporter noted.
The mission will end a decade-long hiatus in Russia’s space tourism program which has not accepted tourists since Canadian 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 for the first movie in orbit in a bid to beat a rival project Hollywood.
The Maezawa 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.
Last year, billionaire Elon Musk’s US company SpaceX ended Russia’s monopoly on human spaceflight to the ISS after delivering astronauts to the orbiting lab in its Crew Dragon capsule.
However, it also freed up space on Russian Soyuz rockets that were previously purchased by NASA, allowing Moscow to accept paying tourists like Maezawa.
Their three-seat 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 journey for Maezawa’s YouTube channel with over 750,000 subscribers.
The mogul is the founder of Japan’s largest online fashion mall and the 30th richest man in the country, according to Forbes.
“I almost cry 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 past few months training in Star City, a city outside of Moscow that groomed generations of Soviet and Russian cosmonauts.
“The toughest workout ever”
Maezawa said practicing on the revolving chair “almost feels like torture.”
“This is the hardest workout ever,” he tweeted in late November.
So far, Russia has sent seven self-funded tourists into 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 completed a historic flight taking the first all-civilian crew on a three-day trip around Earth orbit on a mission called Inspiration4.
Blue Origin, the company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has carried out two missions beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The passengers included 90-year-old Star Trek star William Shatner and Bezos himself.
Shortly 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 beginning of the space opening up for non-professionals with more launches announced for the future.
In 2023, SpaceX plans to take eight amateur astronauts around the moon in a spaceflight funded by Maezawa, who will also be on board.
Russia has also said it will take more tourists to the ISS on future Soyuz launches and also plans to give one of them a spacewalk.
For Russia, retaining its title as a leading space nation is a matter of national pride stemming from its Soviet-era accomplishments 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- one.
But in recent years, Russia’s space program has suffered setbacks, including corruption scandals and botched launches, and faced a cut in public funding.
The industry remains dependent on Soviet-designed technology and although new projects have been announced, such as a mission to Venus, their timing and feasibility remain unclear.
Japanese space tourists arrive at launch site ahead of ISS trip
© 2021 AFP
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