Soyuz MS-20 launch
A Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Dec. 8 carrying the Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft, with a Roscosmos cosmonaut and two Japanese private astronauts on board. Credit: Roscosmos

Updated 8:55 a.m. after successful docking.

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz spacecraft launched Dec. 8 carrying two Japanese private astronauts and a Roscosmos cosmonaut on the first flight in more than a decade for space tourism company Space Adventures.

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2:38 a.m. Eastern, placing the Soyuz MS-20 into orbit nine minutes later. The spacecraft is docked with the Poisk module of the International Space Station at 8:40 a.m. Eastern.

The Soyuz spacecraft is commanded by a Roscosmos cosmonaut, Alexander Misurkin, with two private astronauts on board. One, Yusaku Maezawa, or “MZ,” is the billionaire founder of fashion retailer Zozo. The other, Yozo Hirano, is accompanying Maezawa as a production assistant to film videos Maezawa will later post online.

Maezawa has been documenting his training online for months leading up to the flight. “It’s really starting to kick in that we are flying soon,” he wrote in a tweet six days before launch, which included a video of him and his fellow crew members checking out the interior of their Soyuz spacecraft for the final time before launch.

In addition to filming Maezawa’s activities on the station, Hirano will conduct biomedical research for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine. He will collect data on the effects of the spaceflight environment, notably microgravity, on the human body.

“Private spaceflight participants have an important role in space medicine as they often have a different health profile to professional astronauts,” Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, said in a statement. “Our work in partnership with space medicine experts is enabling people with mild health conditions to launch to space thereby improving our collective knowledge of how the body reacts to gravitational forces and weightlessness.”

Maezawa and Hirono will primarily remain on the Russian segment of the station. “There is very little activity planned on the U.S. segment,” said Dana Weigel, deputy ISS program manager at NASA, during a Nov. 29 briefing. They will briefly visit the cupola, in the U.S. segment, for filming, as well as have “some limited access” to laptops for internet access. “That’s really the only planned activity. Of course, the crew on board is free to invite other crew members over to their segment as they choose.”

Before this flight, Maezawa was best known in the space industry for his announcement in 2018 that he would purchase a flight on SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, then known as BFR, for a flight around the moon. Maezawa said he would fly a group of artists on the “dearMoon” flight, projected at the time to take place in 2023.

In March, dearMoon began accepting applications for people seeking to go on the mission. There has been little public communication since then about the progress on selecting that crew, which was to be announced by the end of June according to the project’s original schedule. A note on the dearMoon website, dated Sept. 1, said that candidates picked for the next round of the selection process had completed medical checkups, but did not disclose how many were being considered or when the final crew would be announced.

Space Adventures announced the Soyuz MS-20 mission in May as its first flight to the ISS in more than a decade. From 2001 to 2009, the company flew seven people on eight trips to the station — one, Charles Simonyi, flew twice — with the last being Guy Laliberté in 2009. Those flights took advantage of open seats on regularly scheduled Soyuz taxi flights to and from the station, but upon the retirement of the space shuttle, all Soyuz seats were needed for crew transfers.

Space Adventures arranged to fly singer Sarah Brightman to the station in 2015, making use of a seat opened up by a year-long mission by two ISS crew members. However, Brightman backed out several months before the flight, citing personal issues.

This flight, however, is a dedicated flight that will return to Earth Dec. 19 with all three on board. Space Adventures is pursuing a second such flight, scheduled for no earlier than 2023, that would also include the option for one private astronaut to perform a brief spacewalk outside the station.

Space Adventures, though, confirmed in October that it had dropped plans for a flight on a SpaceX Crew Dragon. That mission would not have docked with the ISS but instead remained in orbit at altitudes above the station for several days, similar to the Inspiration4 mission in September. A Space Adventures spokesperson said that “ultimately the mix of price, timing and experience wasn’t right” and that the company allowed its contract with SpaceX to expire.

“It’s been a year of incredible progress for commercial spaceflight. Today, we celebrate the launch of MZ, as well as Yozo, which marks Space Adventures’ first mission carrying two private citizens,” Eric Anderson, chairman and chief executive of Space Adventures, said in a statement after the launch. “Humanity is opening up space for all, and it’s clear private spaceflight has a key role to play.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...