Russian rocket carrying Japanese billionaire docks at ISS

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Online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant Yozo Hirano blasted off from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0738 GMT

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 the rise of competition from the United States.

Online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yozo Hirano blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan earlier on Wednesday. 

“We have contact,” Roscosmos tweeted. 

Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson all made breakthrough commercial tourism flights this year, bursting into a market Russia is keen to defend.

“This has been a long process. It’s so moving. I was about to cry,” said Ryo Okubo, a lawyer for Maezawa’s space projects.

Among the revellers was a family-of-three who won spots at the launch from out of a million applicants. The brother and sister were holding hand-drawn banners with Maezawa’s face inside a sunflower and a picture of a rocket.

The 46-year-old billionaire has set out 100 tasks to complete onboard, including hosting a badminton tournament.

Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov welcomed the trio. 

Maezawa also plans to take eight people with him on a 2023 mission around the moon operated by Musk’s SpaceX.

Russia has a history of shepherding self-funded tourists to space.

– ‘Very patient and creative’-

Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, praised Russia’s return to the booming space tourism business.

In October, Russia launched its first untrained cosmonauts into space since Laliberte’s trip, delivering a Russian actress and director to the ISS where they filmed scenes for the first movie in orbit.

NASA bought up all Soyuz launch seats for a reported $90 million per spot — effectively ending tourist flights.

NASA began purchasing flights from SpaceX, stripping Russia of its monopoly and costing its cash-strapped space agency millions of dollars in revenue.

Roscosmos plans to continue growing its space tourism business, already commissioning two Soyuz rockets for such trips.

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