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Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa lifts off for space station on Russian Soyuz

A Japanese billionaire has embarked for a short stay on the International Space Station to experience life in space before flying to the moon.

Yusaku Maezawa, who earlier booked a lunar flight with SpaceX, lifted off with his production assistant Yozo Hirano and veteran cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin of the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos on board Russia's Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft (opens in new tab) on Wednesday (Dec. 8). The 2:38 a.m. EST (0738 GMT or 12:38 p.m. local time) launch atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan marked the first space tourist flight bound for the station since 2009 and the first launch of two self-funded spaceflight participants on a Soyuz.

The three Soyuz MS-20 crewmates are slated to arrive at the space station at about 8:41 a.m. EST (1341 GMT) Wednesday after their spacecraft competes a four-orbit rendezvous and autonomous docking with the Poisk research module.

Related: The first space tourists (photos)

Russia's Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft, atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket, lifts off for a short stay at the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. (Image credit: Roscosmos TV)

Maezawa, Hirano and Misurkin will spend 12 days at the space station, where they will join Expedition 66 (opens in new tab) commander Anton Shkaplerov and cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos; NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron; and astronaut Matthias Maurer with the European Space Agency (ESA).

A Japanese e-commerce entrepreneur, Maezawa will share his experience on the space station — as filmed by Hirano — on his YouTube channel. He has a list of 100 things to do in space (opens in new tab) as were suggested by the public that range from "flying the furtherest paper airplane" to "doing a TikTok dance" to "bringing back air" from the International Space Station.

"I didn't think I would be able to go to space," Maezawa said at a press conference prior to his launch. "I feel fortunate to have this opportunity and to finally fulfill my dream."

In addition to filming Maezawa, Hirano will also take part in human health and performance research on behalf of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine. The studies will include collecting electrocardiogram (ECG) readings, taking part in a series of cognitive tests and using a portable auto-refractor device to collect sight data.

"I am excited to participate in this research as it will help scientists reduce health risks for future space explorers," Hirano said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Misurkin will serve as Maezawa's and Hirano's guide during the mission and will become the first space-based correspondent for the Russian news agency TASS. Under an agreement with Roscosmos, Misurkin wlll establish a TASS news office on the station and file daily reports about the activities of the crew. His articles, photos and videos will be posted to the news agency's website and social media accounts.

Soyuz MS-20 crew, from the left: assistant Yozo Hirano, cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

The Soyuz MS-20 crew, from left: assistant Yozo Hirano, cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

On Sunday (Dec. 19), Misurkin, Maezawa and Hirano will return to Earth on Soyuz MS-20, completing the mission with a touchdown on the steppe of Kazakhstan.

Maezawa, 46, is the CEO of Start Today and the founder of ZOZO, an online retail clothing business, which he sold to Yahoo! Japan. In 2018, he paid an undisclosed but substantial amount to SpaceX for a circumlunar flight on the company's still-in-development Starship spacecraft. Maezawa's "dearMoon" mission (opens in new tab), which will fly him and a crew of artists around the moon (opens in new tab), is currently targeted for launch in 2023.

Hirano, 36, managed the photography team at ZOZO and is now a film producer at Start Today. He works on Maezawa's private projects, including filming for Maezawa's YouTube channel. Hirano's flight on Soyuz MS-20 was underwritten by Maezawa.

Both Maezawa's and Hirano's seats were arranged by Space Adventures, the only company to secure flight contracts for its clients to fly to the International Space Station. Prior to Soyuz MS-20, Space Adventures organized eight flights for seven people (one flew twice).

Related: Building the International Space Station (photos)

The Soyuz MS-20 patch includes an eagle to represent commander Alexander Misurkin and Yusaku Maezawa's 'MZ' logo.

The Soyuz MS-20 patch includes an eagle to represent commander Alexander Misurkin and Yusaku Maezawa's 'MZ' logo. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Maezawa and Hirano are the first Japanese private citizens to fly into space since TV journalist Toyohiro Akiyama spent nearly eight days on Russia's former Mir space station in 1990.

Misurkin, 44, is now on his third spaceflight, having earlier served on the space station's Expedition 35/36 and Expedition 53/54 crews. Prior to lifting off on Soyuz MS-20, Misurkin had already logged 334 days in space.

Soyuz MS-20 is Russia's 66th Soyuz to launch for the International Space Station since 2000 and 149th to fly since 1967.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.