Two More Space Tourists for the ISS

Two More Space Tourists for the ISS

Russia launched two more space tourists to the ISS this morning, just a few weeks after another duo returned to Earth. Billionaire Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant Yozo Hirano are accompanied by veteran professional cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin for an almost 12 day visit with the seven long-duration crew already aboard.

Maezawa was already known in space circles when he announced he would be making this trip to ISS. In 2018 he bought all the seats on Elon Musk’s first Starship (called BFR at the time) flight around the Moon, which is tentatively scheduled for 2023.  This is basically a test flight for him to a destination closer to home.

The trio lifted off the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in their Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft at 2:38 am Eastern Standard Time and docked with the ISS about 6 hours later at 8:40 am EST.

Soyuz MS-20 crew: Yozo Hirano (Japan), Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, Yusaku Maezawa (Japan). Credit: GCTC

Space Adventures brokered this flight for Maezawa and Hirano as it has for others who have flown on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to and from ISS. The first Soyuz space tourist was American Dennis Tito in 2001. Between then and 2009, seven people took eight trips (one flew twice). Then NASA purchased all the available Soyuz seats as the space shuttle program came to an end. NASA does not need them now that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is available, so Russia has resumed selling them to others.

A Russian director and an actress were just on the ISS shooting segments for a Russian film in October.

NASA resisted the idea of flying non-professional astronauts on the ISS, but changed its mind in 2019. The first set of four is set to launch in February on a SpaceX Crew Dragon on a mission arranged through Axiom Space.

Non-professional astronauts are referred to space tourists, spaceflight participants, citizen astronauts, private astronauts, or civilian astronauts. The idea is they are not members of a government’s professional astronaut corps. In a sense they are ordinary people, but most are billionaires like Maezawa, which is not quite ordinary. The price of travelling into space is rather steep so is available only to the wealthy, but some of them bring along others who are less well off, opening opportunities for the long-promised “democratization” of space where many more people will be able to experience the view of Earth from space.

Between orbital flights like this and the suborbital rides offered by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, the ranks already are swelling.

In addition to the four who launched to the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft this year, four Americans spent three days in orbit on the Inspiration4 mission. They did not visit the ISS, but that is eight orbital space tourists in a single year. Of those, only two are known to be billionaires, Maezawa and Inspiration4’s Jared Isaacman.

On top of that, Blue Origin is getting ready to launch six passengers on its New Shepard rocket on Saturday (postponed from Thursday), its third such flight this year. The first two carried four people each, so that’s 14 on New Shepard. Two of them were company employees (one was company owner, Jeff Bezos). Virgin Galactic flew two flights with crews to space this year, one a test flight with two pilots and the other carrying a total of six, all company employees (including owner Richard Branson), though one had flown on the previous flight, so seven individuals. That makes 21 individuals on suborbital flights in one year alone. None has disclosed how much they paid for their flight, but five of the New Shepard passengers (including two on the upcoming flight) were guests.

The suborbital spaceflights are very brief — a total flight time of 10-15 minutes with only a few in space — but it gives the participants a taste of the “Overview Effect,” seeing and hopefully appreciating how fragile the planet is.

Maezawa, Hirano and the others who get the chance to go into orbit for many days have a very different experience, and Maezawa will blaze a new trail when he goes around the Moon. He is in the process of choosing a few companions to make the trip with him, but has not announced who they are. Maezawa has his own YouTube channel where he posts updates on his space adventures.

That’s not to say there’s no place for professional astronauts anymore. The seven Expedition 66 ISS crew members are all professional astronauts or cosmonauts: NASA’s Mark Vande Hei, Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn; ESA’s Matthias Maurer; and Roscosmos’s Anton Shklaperov and Pyotr Dubrov. NASA, in fact, just chose a new class of astronauts and ESA is in the process of doing so as well.

Expedition 66, L-R: Pyotr Dubrov )Roscosmos), Thomas Marshburn (NASA), Anton Shkaplerov (Roscosmos), Raja Chari (NASA), Mark VAne Hei (NASA), Kayla Barron (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA).

China also has three professional cosmonauts on the Tianhe space station right now: Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu.

Shenzhou-13 crew: Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang, and Wang Yaping. Credit: Xinhua

With this morning’s launch of Soyuz MS-20, that makes 13 people in orbit right now, 11 professionals and two tourists.  These three are there for just a short stay: 11 days, 19 hours and 40 minutes. They will land on the steppes of Kazakhstan on December 19 at 10:18 pm EST.


This article has been updated.

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