A cosmonaut, a Japanese billionaire, and his assistant rocketed into orbit Wednesday on their way to the International Space Station for a 12-day visit — the first paid “space tourists” visit in more than a decade.
Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of Zozotown, Japan’s largest online fashion retailer, sees the mission as a stepping stone to a much more ambitious flight. When testing is completed, he is collaborating with SpaceX to charter a flight around the moon aboard the company’s Starship rocket.
But first, Maezawa is paying the Russian space agency Roscosmos an undisclosed sum to fly him and his assistant, Yozo Hirano, to the space station through Virginia-based Space Adventures. Hirano, a film producer, will film the flight for Maezawa’s YouTube channel.
During a pre-launch news conference, Maezawa said, “I feel like an elementary school student about to go on an outing. I didn’t think I would be able to go to space… I feel fortunate to have this opportunity and to finally fulfill my dream.”
The Soyuz MS-20/66S spacecraft, piloted by veteran cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin and flanked on the left by Maezawa and on the right by Hirano, roared to life at 2:38 a.m. EST (12:38 p.m. local time) and climbed away from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz ferry ship was released from the booster’s upper stage eight minutes and 45 seconds after launch. Solar panels and antennas were then deployed as planned, and the spacecraft was launched after the space station, with an automated docking at the lab’s Russian Poisk module scheduled for 8:41 a.m.
Expedition 66 commander Anton Shkaplerov and his Soyuz MS-19/64S crewmates Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei, as well as four Crew Dragon astronauts: NASA’s Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency flier Matthias Maurer, will welcome the crew aboard. According to Space Adventures President Tom Shelley, Maezawa’s “intention is to try to share the experience of what it means to be in space with the general public.” He intends to document “simple things about daily life to possibly some other fun activities, as well as more serious questions.”
Maezawa joined SpaceX founder Elon Musk at the California rocket builder’s factory near Los Angeles in 2018 to announce plans for chartering a flight around the moon aboard a massive new rocket called the Starship. He intends to invite approximately eight guests to join him on the adventure.
Musk would not say how much Maezawa is paying for the trip, but he did say it is “non-trivial” and will help fund the rocket’s development. SpaceX hopes to launch a Starship into orbit on its first unmanned test flight early next year. Maezawa’s “Dear Moon” mission is scheduled to launch in 2023.
Maezawa stated in a quote provided by Space Adventures that he was “I’m looking forward to sharing every detail of my (space station visit) with everyone on Earth. This trip also serves as a chance for me to prepare to be the best host possible when I and eight talented crewmates from around the world embark on the first civilian mission around the moon in 2023.”
The launch of the Soyuz spacecraft marked the fifth piloted trip to the space station this year, the third Russian Soyuz flight, and the second carrying non-professional passengers.
In October, a Russian actress and her producer came to the lab to film scenes for a film in a government-sponsored project. However, Maezawa and Hirano paid for their seats, making them the first “space tourists” to launch to the station since Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté paid for a visit in 2009. Soyuz launches were used exclusively to transport professional cosmonauts and astronauts between Laliberte’s flight and this year. Since 2006, NASA has paid Roscosmos approximately $4 billion for more than 70 Soyuz seats used by NASA astronauts and fliers from the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan.
However, NASA’s commercial crew program, which uses SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules and, eventually, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, has ended the agency’s reliance on the Soyuz, freeing up Soyuz seats that Roscosmos can sell to compensate for some of the lost NASA money.