Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has begun his first space adventure — an 11-day visit to the International Space Station that could serve as the warmup for a round-the-moon trip to come.
Maezawa, production assistant Yozo Hirano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin rode a Soyuz capsule into orbit from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with launch coming at 0738 GMT December 8 (12:38 p.m. local time, 2:38 a.m. EST).
Hours later, the Soyuz docked with the station, and the trio floated inside to meet the orbital outpost’s seven other spacefliers. Maezawa was all smiles as he greeted family and friends back on Earth over a video link.
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Before liftoff, the 46-year-old entrepreneur and art collector said he was looking forward to his journey.
“I feel excited like an elementary student waiting for a school trip,” he said at a news conference. “I want to see the Earth from space, float in zero gravity, and see how I will change through this experience. I was blessed with this opportunity, and I’m truly happy I can go.”
Cost for the trip, which was arranged with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency through Virginia-based Space Adventures, hasn’t been disclosed. But previous space trips arranged with the Russians are thought to have cost in the range of $20 million to $40 million, and the price tag has surely gone up since then.
Maezawa is the CEO of Start Today Ltd. and the founder of Zozo, an online retail clothing business that he sold to Yahoo! Japan in 2019 for $3.7 billion. He made headlines in 2017 for his $110.5 million purchase of an abstract painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and struck a deal with Elon Musk in 2018 for a future trip around the moon in SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket. Maezawa’s net worth is estimated at $1.9 billion.
Hirano’s job is to document Maezawa’s visit to the space station. Misurkin was at the Soyuz’s controls for the flight to the station, and will be in command for the return trip to Earth on Dec. 19.
During their stay, the trio will work with the station’s long-duration crew, including two Russian cosmonauts, four NASA astronauts and a German astronaut representing the European Space Agency.
Maezawa is planning a series of video projects in orbit, including “100 Things You Want MZ to Do in Space.” (Playing golf and getting a zero-gravity haircut are among the activities on the list.) In addition to assisting Maezawa, Hirano will participate in a human health and performance research program organized by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine.
Maezawa and Hirano are the eighth and ninth spacefliers whose visits to the space station have been arranged through Space Adventures over the past 20 years. One of those customers, Seattle tech billionaire Charles Simonyi, liked his trip in 2007 so much that he flew again in 2009. But it’s been 12 years since the most recent trip was taken by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte. This is also the first time Space Adventures has put two customers on the same Soyuz.
Space Adventures was essentially shut out of the market for rides to the space station in 2011 when NASA retired the space shuttle fleet and had to rely exclusively on the Russians to transport U.S. and European astronauts. The market opened up again last year, when SpaceX increased capacity thanks to its Crew Dragon capsules.
Since then, commercial interest in space station trips has picked up significantly. In October, the Russians sent an actress and a director to the station to film scenes for a movie called “The Challenge.” In February, a Houston-based company called Axiom Space plans to send three paying customers to the space station in a Crew Dragon. Yet another Axiom mission is on tap for later on, with the winner of a reality-TV contest among the potential riders.
Meanwhile, Maezawa and SpaceX plan to press ahead with the round-the-moon trip once Starship is cleared for flight beyond Earth orbit, perhaps in the 2023 time frame. Maezawa is in the process of selecting eight crew members to go with him.
This is an updated version of a report first published on December 7.
Lead image: The expanded crew of the International Space Station (including Yusaku Maezawa, lower center) waves over a video link. Source: NASA via YouTube