Space Adventures / ONEDROP Foundation
Guy Laliberte, the billionaire founder of Cirque du Soleil, mugs for the camera with a clown nose before his 2009 flight to the International Space Station. Laliberte is the most recent person to pay his own way into space, at an estimated cost of $40 million. The price will be going "up, up and up" for the next private-sector orbital flier in 2013, Space Adventures says.
Space Adventures says it's reached agreement with the Russian Federal Space Agency to have three seats on Soyuz spacecraft set aside for paying customers who want to go to the International Space Station in 2013. These are likely to be the next opportunities for non-professional astronauts to get a ride into orbit. But the trips won't come cheap.
The last orbital spaceflier, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, paid an estimated $40 million to take a Soyuz ride in September 2009. Since then, the price has gone "up, up and up," Eric Anderson, the CEO of Virginia-based Space Adventures, told me today. Nevertheless, customer interest is still firm, Anderson said, and among the prospects for a flight in 2013 is Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
"He is on the list," Anderson confirmed.
Brin has wanted to go into space since 2008, but since then, the supply of Soyuz seats has tightened up considerably. For one thing, the space station's capacity has risen from three crew members to six, which doubled the requirement for the Soyuz space lifeboats. For another thing, NASA's space shuttle fleet is nearing retirement, which will close off that option for transporting astronauts.
It used to be that a paying passenger could fill an empty seat during one of the two yearly Soyuz exchange trips. That's the route followed by all seven of the spaceflight participants whose trips were brokered by Space Adventures over the past decade. (One of those fliers, software billionaire Charles Simonyi, went twice.) But the tighter supply shut down the pipeline for seats that could be sold.
Now Russia's space agency has agreed to increase Soyuz production from four to five spacecraft per year, to accommodate private-sector spacefliers.
"We are very pleased to continue space tourism with Space Adventures," Alexei Krasnov, the agency's director of human spaceflight, said in a statement released by the company. "Also, the addition of a fifth Soyuz spacecraft to the current manifest will add flexibiliity and redundancy to our ISS transportation capabilities. We welcome the opportunity to increase our efforts to meet the public demand for access to space."
Each flight will last roughly 10 days, and the fliers will have to go through months of pre-launch training in Russia. Although the customers have often been called "space tourists," the folks who are in the business prefer the terms "spaceflight participants" or "private explorers." Some of them, such as New Jersey inventor/entrepreneur Greg Olsen and South African Internet tycoon Mark Shuttleworth, organized their own research programs in cooperation with government space agencies.
Anderson said the first of these new spaceflight participants would likely be named by the end of the year.
Space Adventures is involved in a couple of other private spaceflight ventures: Last year it announced a tentative deal with the Boeing Co. for commercial transport into orbit, either to the International Space Station or a private space destination such as Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable modules. It's also working with Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace to sell suborbital space trips for $102,000 on a craft that's yet to be developed.
Anderson said both the orbital and the suborbital venture are "going very well." Boeing's project is highly dependent on that company getting NASA support for spaceship development, but if the money comes through, its CST-100 craft could be operational by 2015.
Armadillo is also hard at work on its suborbital spacecraft. "With Armadillo, I would expect flights this year that would go well above the atmosphere," Anderson said. He emphasized, however, that the first test flights would likely be remote-controlled.
Anderson said the deal announced today should serve as a hopeful sign for a new age of commercial spaceflight. "This is the first time that launch capacity has been increased due to market demand," he told me. So you can now officially start saving your nickels and dimes — or your T-bills and stock options — for your future spaceflight.