A Japanese television reporter is poised to become the first journalist in space, a privilege for which his employer paid the Soviet Union at least $11 million.
Launch of the eight-day mission to the Soviet space station Mir is scheduled Dec. 2.
The $11 million man is Toyohiro Akiyama, 48, former Washington bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) and currently deputy news director. He will also be the first Japanese citizen to fly in space, officials said.
The Soviets, in need of hard currency and eager to make their space program more self-sufficient, have aggressively marketed their unique manned spaceflight capabilities, as well as other space services, in the West. A French astronaut has flown twice on Soviet space stations and guest cosmonauts from East Bloc countries have flown on Soviet missions, but in exchange for technology rather than cash.
In preparing for the upcoming mission, the Soviets have "dinged" TBS for additional costs whenever they could, according to one source connected with the project.
Several Soviet journalists have begun training for a trip into orbit, according to Alexei Lenov, deputy director of the Gagarin Training Center in Star City, near Moscow. He said the Soviets are working on commercial arrangements for flights by representatives of Britain, Austria, France, West Germany and possibly China.
U.S. and Soviet officials have discussed a swap in which an American astronaut would fly aboard Mir, which the Soviets have been expanding in size, and a Soviet cosmonaut would be launched aboard a U.S. space shuttle, possibly as early as 1992.
The first U.S. attempt to fly an ordinary citizen on the space shuttle ended in disaster, when teacher Christa McAuliffe was killed along with six astronauts in the 1986 Challenger disaster. NASA's plans to fly a journalist were put on indefinite hold after that incident.
The Soviet space station has had several problems this year, some requiring spacewalks by cosmonauts to make repairs.
Akiyama has said he was afraid when he started training but that such fears should not stop a journalist from taking an assignment. "I don't think space is going to be the graveyard for us," he said.
Two days of the mission will be spent going up and returning in a Soyuz spacecraft, with about six days spent aboard Mir.
The TBS Journalist in Space project, which commemorates the company's 40th anniversary, is part of a larger campaign by the company to promote protection of the Earth's environment, TBS officials said.
In addition to live television coverage throughout the mission, Akiyama plans to film the damage to rain forests in Brazil and Borneo, pollution in the Arctic and other changing conditions on the planet for a later documentary. He also will use frogs in a series of medical experiments.
The flight should raise the level of interest in space among the Japanese public, creating "a surge of young boys and girls wanting to travel to space," according TBS.
It is also seen as the possible precursor to a TBS press bureau aboard the the U.S. space station Freedom, to be built in partnership with European nations, Canada and Japan. "The TBS space reporter will be assigned on a continuing basis to the space station," TBS says.
In March 1989, Akiyama and a female photographer, Ryoko Kikuchi, 26, were chosen as finalists from among 126 TBS staff competitors after TBS and Soviet authorities agreed on the flight. For the last year, the two have been in Star City, learning Russian and training in survival, physical fitness, space flight operations and safety, including six months of training with veteran cosmonauts who will make the flight.
Akiyama lost weight "around my tummy, reduced my beer drinking to zero" and gave up smoking during training, he told news conferences in Tokyo and Washington earlier this year.
His impassive expression hides a dry wit. "When I was in Washington, I used to be very energetic. I never got tired," he said. "I could sit through many hours of briefings. That was good training."
This month, the Soviet space agency Glavkosmos selected Akiyama to make the flight. Kikuchi remains on standby.
"The training has paid off. I must take care not to catch cold in the coming month," Akiyama told reporters in Tokyo after his selection.
The reporter was educated in social studies at the International Christian University. He and his wife have two children.
Founded in 1951, TBS is Japan's largest commercial broadcaster, with 25 television and 33 radio affiliates, and is the key station for the Japan News Network (JNN) and the Japan Radio Network (JRN), according to its Washington representative, Hartz/Meek International Inc. TBS emphasizes news and documentary programming, including an 80-minute evening news broadcast, but it also sold the idea for "America's Funniest Home Videos" to the ABC network after pioneering a similar program in Japan, they said.
The company has "pulled back" in its promotion of the journalist-in-space project, however, since the head of TBS was dismissed recently, according to Hartz/Meek president John Meek.
Another Japanese, Mamoru Mohri, 42, a nuclear fusion engineer, is scheduled to fly aboard the space shuttle Atlantis next year.
The Japanese got a late start in space technology, partly because of post-World War II legal restrictions that prevented them from entering the field. But the nation recently sent a probe into lunar orbit, is developing a large rocket known as the H-2, has targeted space for development of commercial technologies and is a partner in the proposed U.S. space station.
The Japanese are reported to be enthusiastic customers for Soviet space science, buying technology "vital to maintaining human life in space," as well as technology from the Energia heavy-lift booster. Last year, a Japanese firm purchased a spare version of the Mir for $10 million.