Russians launch Japanese billionaire on visit to space station

A Russian cosmonaut, a Japanese billionaire and his assistant rocketed into orbit Wednesday and headed for the International Space Station for a 12-day visit — the first by paying space tourists in more than a decade.

The mission serves as a stepping stone of sorts to a much more ambitious flight by Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of Zozotown, the largest online fashion retailer in Japan. He is working with SpaceX to charter a flight around the moon aboard the company’s Starship rocket when testing is complete.

But first, Maezawa, working through Virginia-based Space Adventures, is paying the Russian space agency Roscosmos an undisclosed amount to fly him and his assistant, Yozo Hirano, to the space station. Hirano is a film producer who will document the flight for Maezawa’s YouTube channel.

I feel like an elementary school student about to go on an outing, Maezawa said during a pre-launch news conference. 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.

Eight minutes and 45 seconds after launch, the Soyuz ferry ship was released from the booster’s upper stage. Solar panels and antennas then unfolded as planned and the spacecraft set off after the space station, targeting an automated docking at the lab’s Russian Poisk module at 8:41 a.m.

The crew will be welcomed aboard by Expedition 66 commander Anton Shkaplerov and his Soyuz MS-19/64S crewmates Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei, along with four Crew Dragon astronauts: NASA’s Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency flier Matthias Maurer.

Maezawa’s intention is to try to share the experience of what it means to be in space with the general public, Space Adventures President Tom Shelley told The Associated Press. He plans to document simple things about daily life to maybe some some other fun activities, to more serious questions as well.

In 2018, Maezawa joined SpaceX founder Elon Musk at the California rocket builder’s factory near Los Angeles to announce plans for chartering a flight around the moon using a huge new rocket that SpaceX now calls the Starship. He plans to invite about eight guests to join him on the venture.

Musk would not disclose how much Maezawa is paying for the trip, but said it was a “non-trivial” amount that would help fund the rocket’s development. SpaceX hopes to launch a Starship on its first unpiloted test flight to orbit early next year. Maezawa’s “Dear Moon” mission is tentatively planned for 2023.

A Russian actress and her producer visited the lab in October to film scenes for a movie in a government-sanctioned project. But Maezawa paid for his seat and Hirano’s, making them the first space tourists to launch to the station since Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté paid for a visit in 2009.

Between Laliberte’s flight and this year, Soyuz launches were used exclusively to carry professional cosmonauts and astronauts. Since 2006, NASA has paid Roscosmos some $4 billion for more than 70 Soyuz seats that were used by agency astronauts and fliers representing the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan.

But NASA’s commercial crew program, utilizing SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules and, eventually, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, has ended the agency’s sole reliance on the Soyuz, freeing up Soyuz seats that Roscosmos can sell to make up for at least some of the lost NASA money.