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Soyuz TM-11: First journalist in space

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 27, 2015, 18:44 UTC

Sen—In 1987, as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began carefully nudging his country toward democratic reforms known as "perestroika" and to a greater openness toward the outside world—"glasnost," a TV crew from Tokyo Broadcasting System, TBS, was allowed to visit what was still a highly restricted space launch facility at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Still reeling from the unprecedented hospitality of his Russian hosts, the head of the Japanese crew jokingly asked whether it would be also possible to hitch a ride on the space rocket. To his astonishment, he got "da" (yes) as the answer. But, obviously, in the dawning post-Soviet era, it was just a matter of "how much?"

As the Soviet economy was increasingly suffering from its inherent inefficiency and the burden of military spending, the Kremlin gave the previously secret rocket industry a carte blanche to commercialize. A special department called Glavcosmos was created within the rocket industry to sell launch services, test and research capabilities and, when possible, tickets to the Mir space station.

It took almost two years from the first idea to signing a deal between TBS and Glavkosmos to fly a Japanese TV reporter to the Soviet space station. Around a half of the final price tag (ranging from $12 to $37 million according to different sources) was paid by the channel's main sponsors Sony and Minolta; other advertisers split the rest of the cost. The London-based Spaceflight magazine quoted an unnamed TBS official as saying that Russian NPO Energia, the prime developer of the Soyuz and Mir, made it "very difficult" for TBS to prepare for the flight, by constantly hiking up the price with previously undisclosed charges. It could be explained by the fact that company itself was entering a chaotic transition to commercial relations with its numerous contractors and service providers.

In addition, when the news about the upcoming flight of the Japanese TV reporter reached a wider public, a noisy campaign started in Moscow to urgently prepare a Soviet journalist for the flight to Mir. However, these proposals never materialized. 

At the start of the selection process in Japan, 163 TBS employees applied for the out-of-this-world assignment. By August 1989, the group was narrowed to seven people and on August 17, the company announced that 48-year-old Toyohiro Akiyama (a former head of the Washington bureau and a heavy smoker consuming up to four packs of cigarettes a day) and a 26-year-old Ryoko Kikuchi (the only camerawoman at the company) were chosen to undergo training in Star City near Moscow. Akiyama even promised to give up smoking!

Just a week before launch, Kikuchi came down with an appendicitis and ended up in the military hospital in Baikonur instead of the launch pad.

Without a backup, Akiyama launched onboard Soyuz TM-11 spacecraft on Dec. 2, 1990, along with his Russian colleagues Viktor Afanasiev and Musa Manarov. Akiyama also carried an experiment with six Japanese tree frogs.

At the viewing site, more than 150 reporters watched with envy as his colleague blasted into orbit. Back in Japan, the TBS audience swelled to unprecedented numbers. Despite a severe onset of motion sickness at the beginning of the mission, Akiyama stoically performed his duties of the first TV reporter in space. He also took pictures of big cities from space, including Tokyo, Moscow, New York and Paris for a subsequent assessment of environmental pollution.

While two fresh Soviet cosmonauts were scheduled to remain onboard Mir until the end of May 1991, Akiyama returned to Earth after a week-long business trip on the outpost. He boarded the Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft on December 10, along with a pair of returning Soviet cosmonauts Gennady Manakov and Gennady Strekalov, who had been living aboard Mir since August 1990.

The descent module landed as scheduled with a TBS TV crew on hand to broadcast the touchdown. Upon getting out of the capsule, the epicurean Japanese reporter asked for a beer and a cigarette! He also quite deservedly got an Order of People's Friendship from Mikhail Gorbachev for improving relations between Russia and Japan. His backup, Kikuchi, got the same Soviet award.

Akiyama later revealed that he had hurt his back on landing, but the massage and warm shower was enough to fix the problem in just two days.

It was much harder for TBS to recover from its multi-million dollar expenses on the mission. Despite an initial interest of the public, an aggressive marketing campaign and very enthusiastic response from the TBS officials, the company was reported to lose as much as $7.4 million on the mission. Perhaps, not surprisingly, no other major TV network or other journalistic organization has followed suit.