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Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa arrives at space station

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Yusaku Maezawa plans to take eight people on a 2023 mission around the Moon, operated by SpaceX.

Baikonur, Kazakhstan:

A Japanese billionaire arrived at the International Space Station on Wednesday, marking Russia’s return to space tourism after a decade-long pause that saw increased competition from the United States.

Online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yojo Hirano took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.

The Russian space agency said they docked with the Poisk module of the Russian section of the ISS at 1340 GMT.

Roscosmos livefeed showed the hatch of the Soyuz MS-20 capsule open at 1611 GMT, showing Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin entering the ISS, followed by Maezawa and Hirano.

His journey aboard the three-man Soyuz spacecraft piloted by Misurkin took just six hours, capping a banner year that has been seen by many as a turning point for private space travel.

As the hatches opened, the trio floated into the orbiting station where they were welcomed by Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Petr Dubrov.

The station is currently home to an international crew of seven people.

Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson all made successful commercial tourism flights this year, bursting in a market Russia is eager to rescue.

The crowd at the launch site – which includes Maezawa’s family and friends – faced freezing temperatures and cheered as the rocket exploded into the gray sky, leaving a trail of orange flames before disappearing into the clouds.

“It’s been a long process. It’s a lot going on. I was about to cry,” said Ryo Okubo, counsel for Maezawa’s space projects.

“I’m really excited, but he’s also my friend, so I’m worried about him,” Hiroyuki Sugimoto, 44, a longtime friend of the billionaire, told AFP.

The trio will spend 12 days at the station where Japanese tourists will document their daily lives on the ISS.

The 46-year-old billionaire has set 100 tasks to be completed on the ship, including hosting a badminton tournament.

Maezawa also plans to take eight people on a 2023 mission around the Moon, operated by Musk’s SpaceX.

He and his assistant are the first private Japanese citizens to travel to space since journalist Toyohiro Akiyama’s visit to the Mir station in 1990.

Russia has a history of sending self-financing tourists into space.

In partnership with US-based company Space Adventures, Roscosmos has previously taken seven tourists to the ISS since 2001 – one of them twice.

– ‘Very patient and creative’ –

The last was Guy Laliberte, co-founder of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil in 2009, dubbed the first clown in space.

Space Adventures president Tom Shelley praised Russia’s return to the booming space tourism business.

“It’s been 12 years. We’ve had to be very patient. We have to be very creative. So, it’s the culmination of a lot of different people’s efforts,” he told AFP shortly after liftoff.

In October, Russia launched its first untrained astronaut into space since Laliberte’s voyage, transporting a Russian actress and director to the ISS where she filmed scenes from the first film in orbit.

Moscow stopped sending tourists to space after NASA retired its Space Shuttle in 2011, which left Russia with a monopoly on supplies to the ISS.

NASA bought all Soyuz launch seats for reportedly $90 million per spot – effectively ending tourist flights.

That changed last year when a SpaceX spacecraft successfully carried its first astronauts to the ISS.

NASA began buying flights from SpaceX, stripping Russia of its monopoly and costing its cash-strapped space agency millions of dollars in revenue.

Although the cost of space tickets for tourists has not been disclosed, Space Adventures has indicated that they are in the range of $50-60 million.

Roscosmos plans to continue growing its space tourism business, already commissioning two Soyuz rockets for such trips.

“We will not give this place to the Americans. We are ready to fight for it,” Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said after the launch.

He told reporters that Russia has received two applications for future space flights and that a group of potential passengers is already working at the Astronaut Training Center.

“I can say that this is a Russian group,” he said.

(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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