Tokyo, Aug. 2 (Jiji Press)–Commercial use of the International Space Station is gathering pace, paving the way for space travel by private citizens, including from Japan.
Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, founder of Zozo Inc. <3092>, which operates the online fashion website Zozotown, announced a plan in May to travel to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in December. If it takes place as planned, the flight will make Maezawa, 45, the first Japanese to travel in space without qualifications required by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, to become an astronaut.
The ISS, a modular space station in low Earth orbit, is a multinational collaborative project involving space agencies–JAXA, NASA of the United States, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos.
After the U.S. Space Shuttle program flew its last mission in 2011, Roscosmos began to carry crew members aboard its Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS on behalf of NASA for 80 million dollars per flight. It lost the monopoly, however, when a Crew Dragon reusable spacecraft, developed by American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, succeeded in delivering NASA astronauts to space last year.
Resuming tourist flights after a hiatus of 12 years, Roscosmos will deliver a Russian movie director and an actress to the ISS for filming at the station in October.
Maezawa concluded his space flight deal with Space Adventures Inc., an American space tourism company arranging tours for Roscosmos. The company has proposed a plan to stay at the ISS for tourists including an information technology entrepreneur. It offers an option to go out of the ISS for a spacewalk.
SpaceX plans to offer an Earth orbit tour aboard Crew Dragon after this autumn, while another U.S. space company, Axiom Space Inc., will carry out a tour to the ISS for a 10-day stay, using the spacecraft, early next year at the earliest.
Bigelow Aerospace, a U.S. space technology startup, set up a habitat technology demonstration module at the ISS in 2016.
In January last year, Axiom signed a contract with NASA to attach to the ISS a habitable commercial module with interior decoration arranged by the French designer known for designing, among others, Asahi Breweries Ltd.’s Super Dry Hall in Tokyo and the gold-colored sculpture on top of the hall. After the ISS completes its mission, Axiom is considering using the module as a hotel in space.
Japan has an experimental module, called Kibo, at the ISS, for which JAXA is promoting the outsourcing of experiments, such as the formation of protein crystals and the release of microsatellites, to the private sector in accordance with a plan it adopted in 2016 for use of the module. New projects, including “space broadcasting” of two-way live streaming between the ISS and the ground, are already underway.
“We hope the private sector will play the leading role in the Low Earth Orbit, which is the closest to the Earth,” Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of JAXA, said. On Maezawa’s space trip, Yamakawa said, “We hope it will provide a boost.”
The cost of operating the ISS, completed in 2011, is increasing as a result of long-term use. The commercial use of the station to earn profit is thus likely to accelerate further at a time when the priority of space exploration competition between nations is shifting to the moon and Mars.