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First Journalist is Launched Into Space

December 2, 1990

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ A sleek rocket thundered into the sky over the Central Asian desert Sunday in a joint Soviet-Japanese mission that carried the first journalist into space.

Smoke and tongues of flame engulfed the launch pad as the 150-foot rocket lifted off at 1:13 p.m. (3:13 a.m. EST), hurling the Soyuz TM-11 capsule and its crew toward a rendezvous with the Soviet space station Mir.

Toyohiro Akiyama, the first journalist and first Japanese in space, joined the mission led by Soviet Cmdr. Viktor Afanasyev and flight engineer Musa Manarov.

Japan’s TBS television company paid the Soviets $12 million to send Akiyama, a news director for the network, into space. They took out $2.2 million in insurance on his life.

″All conditions normal,″ said an announcer who gave reports every 10 seconds as the rocket soared into orbit in a flawless launch.

Akiyama was to describe the trip in live radio and television broadcasts to Tokyo, and conduct sleep studies and experiments to see how Japanese tree frogs cope in a gravity-free environment.

Hundreds of foreign journalists watched the launch at the once-secret Baikonur Cosmodrome, 1,250 miles east of Moscow.

The space venture by TBS, Japan’s biggest private television company, is a watershed for the two countries, which never formally ended their World War II hostilities and still dispute ownership of some islands off the Japanese coast.

″If we continue our friendship, it would be good,″ cosmonaut Afanasyev said at a news conference Saturday.

Afanasyev and Manarov will replace two Soviet cosmonauts who have been in the space station for the past four months. Afanasyev and Manarov are expected to stay in space for six months.

The eight-day mission was the eighth to hook up with the Mir space station since it was put into orbit in 1986.

Fourteen foreign astronauts have ridden into space aboard Soyuz capsules, but Akiyama is the first paying non-scientific passenger.

The flight also will boost the Soviet Union’s two-year effort to commercialize its space program.

″The Soviets need money,″ Akiyama said. ″Their space industry has to be competitive, like the French, Chinese and Americans have started to do. It’s quite natural for the Russians to start this kind of business.″

″If I work hard and I’m successful, then I expect to get a bonus,″ joked Akiyama, TBS’ former bureau chief in Washington. ″If I get space sickness, then it should be counted as sick leave.″

The journalist was carrying three amulets into space, given to him by his father, the prime minister of Japan and by the president of TBS.

Asked before launch what he was looking forward to most upon his return in eight days, Akiyama replied: ″I can’t wait to have a smoke.″

More than 120 TBS reporters, cameramen and technicians were brought to the cosmodrome to document the flight.

Soviet officials went out of their way to open to display the cosmodrome’s huge installations for assembling rockets. Foreigners have been subject to a not-so-subtle sales pitch.

″We can launch any satellite from any country ... just bring it here,″ said Major Gen. Alexei Shumilin, deputy director of testing at the cosmodrome.