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Science and Environment

Russia to send Japanese tycoon to ISS in return to space tourism

Anastasia Clark - Agence France-Presse
Russia to send Japanese tycoon to ISS in return to space tourism
Space flight participants - Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa (R) and his assistant Yozo Hirano - attend a training ahead of the expedition to the International Space Station, in Star City outside Moscow on October 14, 2021. Space tourists Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yozo Hirano, led by Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, will take part in a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for December 8, 2021.
SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / POOL / AFP

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — Russia on Wednesday will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the International Space Station in a move marking Moscow's return to the now booming space tourism business after a decade-long break.

One of Japan's richest men, Maezawa, 46, will blast 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 onto the launch pad in unusually wet weather for Baikonur, an AFP journalist saw.

The mission will end a decade-long pause in Russia's space tourism programme that has not accepted tourists since Canada's Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberte in 2009.

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

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

Last year, the US company SpaceX of billionaire Elon Musk ended Russia's monopoly on manned flights to the ISS after it delivered astronauts to the orbiting laboratory in its Crew Dragon capsule.

This, however, also freed up seats on Russia's Soyuz rockets that were previously purchased by NASA allowing Moscow to accept fee-paying tourists like Maezawa.

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

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

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

"I am almost crying because of my impressions, this is so impressive," Maezawa said in late November after arriving at Baikonur for the final days of preparation.

Maezawa and Hirano have spent the past few months training at Star City, a town outside Moscow that has prepared generations of Soviet and Russian cosmonauts.  

'Hardest training ever'

Maezawa said that training in the spinning chair "almost feels like torture". 

"It's the hardest training ever done," he tweeted in late November.

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

Maezawa's launch comes at the end of a year that became a milestone for amateur space travel. 

In September, SpaceX operated a historic flight taking the first all-civilian crew on a three-day journey around the Earth's orbit in a mission called Inspiration4.

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

Soon after, billionaire Richard Branson travelled aboard his Virgin Galactic spacecraft that also offered a few minutes of weightlessness before coming back to Earth.

Those journeys mark the beginning of space opening up for non-professionals with more launches announced for the future. 

In 2023, SpaceX is planning to take eight amateur astronauts around the moon in a spaceflight that is bankrolled by Maezawa, who will also be onboard. 

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

For Russia, retaining its title of a top space nation is a matter of national pride stemming from its Soviet-era achievements amid rivalry with the United States. 

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

But in recent years Russia's space programme has suffered setbacks, including corruption scandals and botched launches, and faced a cut in state funding.

The industry remains reliant on Soviet-designed technology and while new projects have been announced, such as a mission to Venus, their timeline and feasibility remain unclear.

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION

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As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: May 13, 2022 - 10:54am

Monitor major developments on space explorations and the status of missions.

May 13, 2022 - 10:54am

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The ground-breaking experiment, detailed in the journal Communications Biology on Thursday, has given researchers hope that it may be possible to one day grow plants directly on the Moon.

That would save future space missions much hassle and expense, facilitating longer and farther trips.

However, according to the study's University of Florida authors, much remains to be studied on the topic, and they intend to leave no stone unturned. -- AFP

May 6, 2022 - 2:42pm

NASA's Crew-3 mission returns home to Earth on Friday after six months aboard the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Dragon Endurance spacecraft with NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn, as well as European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, undocked from the orbital laboratory a day earlier.

Their 23.5 hour journey back saw them splash down off the coast of Florida at 12:43 am (0443 GMT).

"On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome home," a SpaceX official said to the crew moments after the capsule splashed down. — AFP

April 25, 2022 - 10:03am

The crew of the first fully private mission to the International Space Station departed the orbiting laboratory on Monday to head back to Earth.

The three businessmen and a former NASA astronaut had spent more than two weeks on the station on a history-making mission organized by startup company Axiom Space.

The SpaceX capsule undocked from the ISS at 0110 GMT for the return trip and was scheduled to land in the ocean off the coast of Florida at around 1:00 pm local time (1700 GMT). — AFP

April 16, 2022 - 10:27am

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The Shenzhou-13 spacecraft is the latest mission in Beijing's drive to become a major space power rivalling the US, after landing a rover on Mars and sending probes to the Moon.

The two men and one woman -- Zhai Zhigang, Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping -- landed in a small capsule shortly before 10 am Beijing time, after six months aboard the Tianhe core module of China's Tiangong space station. — AFP

April 6, 2022 - 8:13am

The latest test of NASA's giant Moon rocket SLS has been pushed back to allow for a SpaceX rocket to launch later this week, the US space agency announces.

The dress rehearsal for the giant Space Launch System had been scheduled for Friday at launch pad 39B at Cape Canaveral, Florida, at the same time as SpaceX's lift-off from pad 39A.

The test of the rocket, which is to return humans to the Moon, is now expected to resume shortly after the take-off of the SpaceX flight, which is to carry three businessmen and a former astronaut to the International Space Station. — AFP 

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