Japanese Billionaire Finishes Up Space Station Mission With Online Flourishes

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and two crewmates have returned to Earth after an 11-day mission to the International Space Station that was marked by online innovations including an NFT drop and a lottery giveaway.

Maezawa, his production assistant Yozo Hirano, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin took a 3.5-hour ride from the station on a Soyuz craft, climaxing in a touchdown amid the steppes of Kazakhstan around the appointed time of 0313 GMT (9:13 a.m. local time) Dec. 20.

After the landing, the three spacefliers were helped out of the capsule and given medical checks.

The short-duration stay was the first private astronaut trip to the space station brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures in 12 years. In an interview with The Associated Press, Maezawa said reports that he paid more than $80 million for the adventure were “pretty much” accurate.

“Once you are in space, you realize how much it is worth it by having this amazing experience,” he told AP. “And I believe that this amazing experience will lead to something else.”

Maezawa, 46, 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 a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and struck a deal with Elon Musk in 2018 for a trip around the moon in SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket. Maezawa’s net worth is estimated at $1.9 billion.

Hirano came along to document the journey, and was clearly kept busy. More than a dozen video features and several short snippets were released on Maezawa’s YouTube channel during the mission, including a how-to guide for the station’s zero-G toilet (a perennial favorite) and a time-lapse video of the space station’s 90-minute orbit around Earth.

In the most popular video, with more than 6.8 million views, Maezawa laid out his plans for an online lottery that would guide his charitable donations. The arrangement involves a Japanese money-sharing app called Kifutown, a communication app called Line, and a roulette-style game with a maximum payout of 1 million yen ($8,810).

Some of the key details surrounding the giveaway still appear to be up in the air, however. Arigato Bank, which backs the Kifutown platform, said donations would be in the form of “electronic money” that can’t be converted to cash.

During his trip, Maezawa also announced that the first photo he took in space — showing the curving Earth stretching beneath a segment of the space station — was issued as a non-fungible token, or NFT.

NFTs are cryptographic assets that take advantage of blockchain to certify their authenticity. They’ve become all the rage on the art frontier (and the cryptocurrency frontier) because they offer an esoteric form of ownership for digital works. Dozens of space-themed NFTs were offered for sale during September’s Inspiration4 orbital mission as a fundraiser.

For what it’s worth, Maezawa’s “Rendezvous” NFT includes the photo as well as video files captured around the time when the photo was recorded, plus meta-information about the work.

Maezawa’s privately funded space adventure comes on the heels of the free-flying Inspiration4 mission and October’s mission to film scenes for a movie on the space station. Yet another crew of private astronauts is due to spend more than a week on the space station early next year, with Texas-based Axiom Space handling the logistics.

The privately funded round-the-moon trip, tentatively planned for 2023, is expected to blaze still more new trails for space tourism and space commerce. Maezawa is in the process of selecting eight crew members to go with him, with preference given to artists, musicians, performers and other creative types.

Lead image: One of Yusaku Maezawa’s videos featured a drum-playing session on the International Space Station. Source: Yusaku Maezawa via Twitter