THE WORLD IS celebrating the “historic” mission of UK billionaire Richard Branson, who is painted as the “first space tourist” and “pioneer” of commercial space tourism.
But people in Asia may remember a mushroom farmer, a rocket covered in advertising logos, and the story of the world’s real “first space tourist”.
It’s a tale worth telling.
His name was Toyohiro Akiyama
Thirty years ago, Toyohiro Akiyama was a reporter working for a TV station called TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System). His bosses decided to pay cash to the Russians to fly their staff member to a space station as a ratings-booster.
It was 1990. Japan was super-wealthy in those days and his company decided it could afford to blow a few million dollars on such a stunt.
The trip to space would be the first commercial spaceflight in history, so the “look and feel” of the operation was unusual. The outer casing of the lower parts and the Soyuz booster carried advertisements for Sony, Unicharm, and Otsuka Pharmaceutical. (See picture below.)
The rocket carried several advertisements, plus the Japanese and Russian flags
Akiyama himself was also not like your run-of-the-mill astronaut or cosmonaut. He was not a military man or a scientist or an engineer. He was a four-pack-a-day chain smoking “greenie” journalist whose favorite topic of conversation was the coming environmental doom of our planet. What he really wanted to do was farm mushrooms in the remote countryside somewhere.
Space mission leaders refused to let him to take his cigarettes to space but did allow him to take a box of frogs.
Toyohiro Ayakima was sometimes known as the “anti-astronaut” because he was so unlike the others.
When asked about what he most looked forward to when he eventually returned to earth, he did not mention his wife, children, or employer. He said: “I can’t wait to have a smoke.”
The mission was a success. He spent seven days at the space station, quietly making history.
The operation was the first spaceflight ever to be commercially sponsored and funded. He was the first civilian to take a paid, commercial flight to space.
And let’s be clear – this was no visit for a few minutes to the top of the atmosphere – the station was in black, star-studded orbital space, and he stayed for a week.
Space in the internal areas of the Mir space stations was tight
Linked by radio to earth, he proved himself to be a typical Asian parent. He used his radio air-time to express his fears that his children may spend too much time watching television while he was away. “Please tell Ken-ken and Naoko to study,” he said.
He was grateful to return home.
Back safely on his beloved earth, he found himself unhappy and restless as a reporter. Journalism had been set adrift from its noble founding principles by modern commercialism, he said.
He retired from the TV news business in 1995, and announced that he was going to set up an organic mushroom farm and paddy field in Fukushima Prefecture.
His wife Kyoko left him.
For years, he apparently found happiness.
He set up a farm, growing mushrooms and operating rice paddy fields: Picture: Phoenix Han/ Unsplash
But the world of futuristic technology with which Toyohiro Akiyama had briefly interacted won in the end.
The Fukushima nuclear plant had a meltdown in 2011 and he was forced to abandon his farm.
And, like many pioneers from the eastern side of the world, his story has now been almost entirely forgotten.
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Pictures mostly from historical sources except where mentioned. Main pic shows the Mir space station photographed by NASA