Japanese billionaire ready for launch to International Space Station

Japanese spaceflight participant Yozo Hirano, Russan cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, and Japanese space tourist Yusaku Maezawa pose for a crew portrait at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia. Credit: Roscosmos

A Russian Soyuz rocket is set for blastoff Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire businessman, his cameraman and production assistant, and a veteran Russian cosmonaut commander on a 12-day trip to the International Space Station.

Maezawa, fellow Japanese space tourist Yozo Hirano, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin are scheduled to blast off at 2:38:15  a.m. EST (0738:15 GMT) Wednesday from the Central Asia spaceport.

They will ride Russia’s Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft into orbit on top of a Soyuz-2.1a rocket, launching on a six-hour chase of the space station culminating in a docking with the Poisk Module set for 8:41 a.m. EST (1341 GMT).

The three-man crew will join a team of seven astronauts and cosmonauts living and working on the space station, temporarily boosting the crew size to 10.

Hirano will film Maezawa floating inside the space station, and document life aboard the complex during the 12-day stay. Misurkin, a 44-year-old veteran of two previous half-year stints on the station, will shepherd Maezawa, 46, and Hirano, 36, to and from the space station on the Soyuz spaceship.

Maezawa paid for the mission through Space Adventures, a U.S.-based company that acts as a broker for space tourist flights. Space Adventures has not disclosed how much the flight cost Maezawa, but Russia charged NASA as much as $90 million for a seat on a Soyuz flight to the space station.

The commercial price for a space tourist, who requires less training and is flying for a shorter duration, is likely somewhat less than $90 million.

Maezawa and Hirano, who trained for three months for the spaceflight, will continue a trend of privately-funded crews heading into space this year.

SpaceX launched an all-civilian mission to low Earth orbit in September financed by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, who selected three private citizens to join him on a three-day spaceflight designed as a fundraising initiative for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A Russian actress and film director spent nearly 12 days on the space station in October to shoot scenes for a Russian movie.

And private space fliers have launched to suborbital space on three commercial flights by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, the space companies founded by billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. Branson and Bezos each flew to the edge of space in July on their own companies’ rockets.

Maezawa, founder of Zozotown, Japan’s largest online fashion retailer, announced plans in 2018 to travel around the moon on a private mission aboard SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket. But he will get his first taste of spaceflight on a Russian Soyuz rocket.

The 15-story-tall Soyuz rocket rolled to its launch pad at Baikonur on Sunday, and gantry arms closed around the launcher to give ground teams access to the vehicle for final inspections and checkouts.

“I’m so curious ‘what’s life like in space’?” Maezawa said in a statement earlier this year. “So, I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world on my YouTube channel.”

In addition to his high-flying film production with Maezawa, Hirano will participate a health experiment with the Baylor College of Medicine to study how spaceflight effects the human body. The goal of the research is to examine how people with a range of physiological conditions and backgrounds respond to space travel.

Researchers will collect biomedical data from Hirano before launch and after landing, including electrocardiogram activity, movement, sleep, heart rate and rhythm, and blood oxygen saturation. The research also collects cognitive and vision data, and balance and perfection testing.

“I am excited to participate in this research as it will help scientists reduce health risks for future space explorers,” Hirano said in a statement released by Space Adventures.

The Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft will depart the space station Dec. 19 and return to landing in Kazakhstan with Misurkin, Maezawa, and Hirano.

Maezawa, who is active on social media, tweeted recently that he has been planning for a trip to space for seven years.

“It really became a reality,” he wrote. “Many people’s faces come to mind with gratitude. The countdown has begun.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.