Soyuz returns from private astronaut mission to the ISS

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WASHINGTON — A Soyuz spacecraft carrying a Russian cosmonaut and two Japanese private astronauts returned to Earth late Dec. 19, wrapping up a banner year for commercial human spaceflight.

The Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station at 6:50 p.m. Eastern, more than 11 days after its arrival there. It safely landed in Kazakhstan at 10:13 p.m. Eastern.

The Soyuz returned to Earth Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin along with Japanese private astronauts Yusaku “MZ” Maezawa and Yozo Hirano. The three launched to the station on a Soyuz rocket Dec. 8 in a flight brokered by American space tourism company Space Adventures.

Maezawa, the billionaire founder of fashion retailer Zozo, spent his time in space doing a series of videos about life on the station. Those activities included an ad for food delivery company Uber Eats where Maezawa, dressed like a delivery person, handed over a bag of canned foods to Misurkin. Hirano, Maezawa’s assistant, helped produce the videos.

In an interview with The Associated Press several days after his arrival, Maezawa said he was enjoying his time in the space despite bouts of space sickness and some difficulty sleeping. “Once you are in space, you realize how much it is worth it by having this amazing experience,” he said.

“The completion of MZ’s spaceflight marks not only a milestone for him and Space Adventures but for the commercial spaceflight industry as a whole and humanity’s future in space,” said Eric Anderson, chief executive of Space Adventures, in a company statement. “MZ’s mission comes at the tail end of a year that saw an incredible boom in space tourism and is set to usher in another wave of exploration.”

This year saw four organizations perform seven dedicated commercial human spaceflights. Virgin Galactic conducted two flights of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, including one in July that carried Richard Branson about the 80-kilometer altitude that the company, and U.S. government agencies, define as space for the purposes of astronaut recognition. Blue Origin carried out three crewed flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, most recently Dec. 11, taking 14 people to altitudes above 100 kilometers. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon carried out the Inspiration4 mission in September, taking four people on a three-day orbital flight.

The Soyuz MS-20 mission was the first dedicated private astronaut Soyuz flight to the ISS. It was also the first time Space Adventures flew people to space since 2009, when the company was selling extra seats on Soyuz taxi missions to and from the station. In October, another of those regular Soyuz taxi flights took a Russian actress and director to the station, spending more than a week there to film scenes for a movie.

The companies involved in 2021 commercial human spaceflight have widely varying plans for 2022. Blue Origin said after its latest mission it’s expecting to conduct “several” New Shepard launches in 2022 carrying people or payloads but did not offer a more specific estimate. SpaceX’s next commercial Crew Dragon mission is the Ax-1 flight for Axiom Space to the ISS, scheduled for February. That will be followed as soon as next fall by the Ax-2 mission for Axiom.

Virgin Galactic, however, has not flown SpaceShipTwo since Branson’s flight in July. The company is in an extended maintenance period for both SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and does not expect to resume commercial suborbital flights before late 2022. Space Adventures is planning another dedicated Soyuz mission to the ISS no earlier than 2023, a flight that will include an option for a customer to carry out a brief spacewalk outside the station.