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Russian rocket carrying Japanese billionaire docks at International Space Station

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The ISS is home to a crew of seven, including two Russian cosmonauts and a Japanese cosmonaut.

Baikonur, Kazakhstan:

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 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.

“We have contact,” Roscosmos tweeted.

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

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.

Among the fun was a family of three, which won a spot at launch out of a million applicants. The siblings were holding hand-drawn banners that featured Maezawa’s face inside a sunflower and a picture of a rocket.

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.

The ISS is home to an international crew of seven people, including two Russian cosmonauts and a Japanese cosmonaut.

Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov welcomed the trio.

“We have already prepared dinner for you,” he tweeted. “We are waiting for the hatch to open in a few hours!”

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.

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

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