Tuesday, December 7

Toyohiro Akiyama: The Japanese Who Just Wanted to Smoke and Other Curious Space Tourists | Science


Toyohiro Akiyama, in an official photo before traveling to the MIR.
Toyohiro Akiyama, in an official photo before traveling to the MIR.

The echoes of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ travels to the edge of space have all but faded, but that doesn’t mean the fledgling cosmic tourism industry has lost steam. Quite the contrary. The list of future passengers continues to grow. And the variety of destinations, too. But neither Branson nor Bezos, nor those future space tourists, have been the first.

The first civilian – not a professional astronaut – to go into space was a Japanese journalist, Toyohiro Akiyama, who in December 1990 spent a week at Mir station. From there he would send his chronicles live to the television station Tokio Broadcast System, which was the one who had assumed the cost of the trip (about ten million dollars).

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At first, Akiyama’s interventions caused audience ratings to skyrocket. But interest quickly evaporated, in part because audiences got tired of seeing images of terrain and clouds reminiscent of weather reports. In addition, poor Akiyama, who was not an athlete despite having passed a previous year of training in the USSR, suffered from continuous nausea and dizziness that made his stay on board unpleasant.

The experiments he was supposed to illustrate did not draw large audiences either. The most fascinating consisted of observing the behavior of half a dozen frogs in weightlessness: the fattest ones seemed to enjoy the experience while the little ones preferred to be still in a corner, longing for their days next to a pond in the shade of the Fuji. Meanwhile, Akiyama (a four-pack-a-day smoker) only seemed to dream of returning to the ground and finally being able to light a cigarette.

Poor Akiyama, who was not an athlete, suffered from constant nausea and dizziness that made his stay on board unpleasant.

Shortly after his return to land, Akiyama left the television network to dedicate himself to subsistence farming: rice and mushrooms, a life change that would cost him a divorce. His family stayed in Tokyo and he bought a plot where the price was more affordable: a short distance from the Fukushima plant. In 2011, the tsunami and subsequent radiation leak put an end to his ecological adventure. Today, retired but still a convinced anti-nuclear activist, he teaches at the University of Kyoto.

In May 1991 chemist Helen Sharman flew to Mir, under the auspices of the Juno project, a Russian-British initiative that was on the verge of derailing due to lack of funds. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has already made it clear that the government would not contribute a pound. Everything relied on private sponsorship – from British Aerospace to a flower distributor to a cassette tape maker – in the hope that the fees for embedding their logos on the rocket’s fuselage would be enough to pay for the ten million dollars it cost. Square. Only half was raised. Faced with the international embarrassment that the cancellation of the project would have entailed, it was Mikhail Gorbachev himself who announced that the country he presided over, the Soviet Union, would pay for the rest.

Akiyama and Sharman (who, by the way, was the first British astronaut) cannot be considered space tourists, since their flights were paid for by other organizations. The first person who really paid for it out of pocket was the American Dennis Tito. His flight, organized by Space Adventures, a company dedicated to this type of activity, took place in April 2001 overcoming the reluctance of NASA, which did not consider it a “serious” activity. The price was $ 20 million, just a pinch on his fortune (estimated at $ 1 billion today) but a very welcome injection of capital for the Russian space agency, almost ruined after the disintegration of the USSR.

The American millionaire Dennis Tito, during his stay on the International Space Station.
The American millionaire Dennis Tito, during his stay on the International Space Station.EPA

Tito spent a week aboard the International Space Station (ISS). NASA, still resentful, banned its entry into the American segment of the station, although that restriction was applied without much rigor.

Most of the tourists who followed in Tito’s footsteps were millionaires thanks to their activity in computer science or in financial businesses associated with the Internet. The second to visit the ISS was South African Mark Shuttleworth, author of the Ubuntu Linux distribution and, later, of software for managing verification certificates.

Charles Simony, a long-time collaborator of Bill Gates and the mastermind behind the creation of Word and Excel, spent fifteen days at the station in 2007 and liked the experience so much that he repeated after two years. For his first trip he paid 25 million dollars; in the second, the price had risen to 35.

The exclusive orbital tourist club also includes a woman, Anousheh Ansari, born in Tehran but a US national. She was a determined promoter of the commercial exploitation of space, to the point of creating the prize that bears her name: 10 million dollars for the first ship capable of going to and from space twice with a maximum interval of fifteen days. It was won by Scaled Composites, the same company that would later apply that experience to build the Spaceship 2 in which Richard Branson flew. But, except for the publicity, it was not a good deal: the development of the prototype had cost ten times as much.

Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, salutes before departing for the ISS.
Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, salutes before departing for the ISS.REUTERS

The list of visitors to the space station is completed by other three millionaires from backgrounds as diverse as Gregory Olsen, manufacturer of electronic equipment used in the aerospace industry; Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil; and Richard Garriott, a second-generation video game designer and astronaut: His father joined the Skylab crew in 1973.

All these flights took place about twenty years ago, taking advantage of the fact that Russia offered seats in its Soyuz in exchange for income in hard currency. With the withdrawal of the space shuttle, NASA became a client of Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, reserving all available places so that its astronauts could access the ISS. Now, with the entry into service of private capsules such as the Dragon From SpaceX, the space tourism industry is booming again.

The list keeps growing

The name of the next space traveler has already been decided: it will be Jared Isaacman, another American millionaire who at the age of 37 has already accumulated a fortune of 2.5 billion dollars … without having finished high school.

Unlike his predecessors, Isaacman has not bought a single ticket for himself. He has chartered an entire capsule with the intention of taking with him three guests, all related in one way or another to a Memphis hospital to which he has made numerous donations.

They will be in orbit for three days, although without approaching the international station. Isaacman himself will pilot, who has experience in operating reactors, including some military models. It is, therefore, a true tourist flight, in which the main incentive is to contemplate the landscape that passes below them. Like capsule windows Crew Dragon They are small, Elon Musk’s company has agreed to replace the bow mooring mechanism, useless in this mission, with a transparent plastic bubble that allows passengers a better view of the panorama. If there are no delays, the mission Inspiration 4, will fly in the middle of next September.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, in a picture from March this year.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, in a picture from March this year.KIM KYUNG-HOON / Reuters

Russia has reopened what looks like a flourishing business with its venerable Soyuz capsules. One will take off in October with a professional astronaut and two paying passengers: film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild. The objective is to record some scenes on board the space station to Challenge, which would be the first space movie in every sense of the word. With permission from Tom Cruise, who announced a similar project a year ago, but which is currently undated.

Next in line are two Japanese: the billionaire Yusaku Maezawa (who pays the two tickets) and the film producer, Yozo Hirano. They will fly in a Soyuz that should take off in December. Maezawa, a textile entrepreneur and art collector, has also hired several places in a Space X capsule, only this time the trip will be further: go around the Moon and return to Earth. But that’s at least three or four years away. Hopefully.

Rafael Clemente He is an industrial engineer and was the founder and first director of the Barcelona Science Museum (now CosmoCaixa). He is the author of A Small Step For [un] man (Dome Books).

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