Russian rocket takes off carrying Japanese billionaire to ISS


A Russian rocket lifted off Wednesday carrying a Japanese billionaire to the International Space Station, marking the country’s return to space tourism after a decade-long hiatus that saw increasing competition from American companies.

Online fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant Yozo Hirano took off from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0738 GMT, an AFP correspondent reported on the spot.

Their trip aboard the three-person Soyuz spacecraft piloted by cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin will take just over six hours, closing a record year that many see as a turning point for private space travel.

Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have all taken groundbreaking commercial tourist flights this year, breaking into a market Russia would like to defend.

A crowd at the launch site – including Maezawa’s family and friends – braved freezing temperatures and cheered as the rocket lifted off into the gray sky, leaving a trail of orange flames before disappearing into the clouds .

“It’s been a long process. It’s so moving. I was about to cry,” said Ryo Okubo, 46, lawyer for Maezawa space projects.

“I’m really excited but he’s also my friend so I’m worried about him,” a longtime friend of the billionaire Hiroyuki Sugimoto, 44, told AFP.

Among the revelers was a family of three who won seats at the launch among a million applicants. The brother and sister were holding hand-drawn banners with Maezawa’s face inside a sunflower and a photo of a rocket.

After docking at the Poisk module of the Russian segment of the ISS, the trio will spend 12 days on the station. Japanese tourists will document their daily lives aboard the ISS for the popular Maezawa YouTube channel.

The 46-year-old billionaire has defined 100 tasks to accomplish on board, including organizing a badminton tournament in orbit.

The ISS is home to an international crew of seven including two Russian cosmonauts and a Japanese astronaut.

Maezawa, who is a space enthusiast, also plans to take eight people with him on a 2023 mission around the moon operated by Musk’s SpaceX.

He and his assistant are the first private Japanese citizens to visit space since journalist Toyohiro Akiyama visited Mir station in 1990.

Before his industry hiatus, Russia used to accompany self-funded tourists into space.

In partnership with the American company Space Adventures, the Roscosmos space agency had already taken seven tourists aboard the ISS since 2001, including one on two occasions.

Compete against SpaceX

The latter was the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil in Canada, Guy Laliberté in 2009, who became the first clown in space.

“It’s been 12 years. We had to be very patient. We had to be very creative. So this is the culmination of a lot of effort on the part of many different people,” Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, said told AFP shortly after takeoff.

In October, Russia launched its first untrained cosmonauts into space since that trip, delivering a Russian actress and director to the ISS where they filmed scenes for the first film in orbit.

Moscow had stopped sending tourists to space after NASA withdrew its space shuttle in 2011, which left Russia with a monopoly on supplying the ISS.

NASA bought all of the Soyuz launch seats for $ 90 million per seat, putting an end to tourist flights.

That changed last year when a SpaceX spacecraft successfully delivered its first astronauts to the ISS.

NASA has started buying flights from SpaceX, robbing Russia of its monopoly and costing its cash-strapped space agency millions of dollars in revenue.

Although the cost of space tickets for tourists was not disclosed, Space Adventures said it was between $ 50 million and $ 60 million.

Roscosmos said he plans to continue expanding his space tourism business, already commissioning two Soyuz rockets for such trips.

“We will not give this window to the Americans. We are ready to fight for it,” Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said after the launch on Wednesday.

But Roscosmos also faces competition from SpaceX in space tourism.

Earlier this year, a Crew Dragon capsule flew an all-civilian mission on a three-day trip around Earth orbit in a historic first.

Also on Russia’s heels are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, who completed their first sightseeing trip this year.


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