BAIKONUR: A Russian rocket carrying a Japanese billionaire docked with the International Space Station on Wednesday, marking the country’s return to space tourism after a decade-long pause that saw the rise of competition from the United States.
Online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yozo Hirano blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan earlier on Wednesday.
They docked with the Poisk module of the Russian segment of the ISS at 1340 GMT, the Russian space agency said. “We have contact,” Roscosmos tweeted.
Their journey aboard the three-person Soyuz spacecraft piloted by cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin took just over six hours, capping a banner year that many have seen as a turning point for private space travel.
Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson all made breakthrough commercial tourism flights this year, bursting into a market Russia is keen to defend.
A crowd at the launch site — including Maezawa’s family and friends — braved freezing temperatures and cheered as the rocket blasted off into the grey sky, leaving a trail of orange flames before disappearing in the clouds. “This has been a long process. It’s so moving. I was about to cry,” said Ryo Okubo, a lawyer for Maezawa’s space projects.
“I’m really excited but he’s also my friend so I’m worried about him,” a longtime friend of the billionaire, 44-year-old Hiroyuki Sugimoto, said. Among the revellers was a family-of-three who won spots at the launch from out of a million applicants. The brother and sister were holding hand-drawn banners with Maezawa’s face inside a sunflower and a picture of a rocket.
The trio will spend 12 days on the station where the Japanese tourists will document their daily life aboard the ISS for Maezawa’s popular YouTube channel.