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Round-the-moon mission boosted

Space Adventures

An artist's conception shows a Russian-built propulsion module and habitation module at left, linked up with a Soyuz spacecraft at right to create a complex designed for flying around the moon and back to Earth.

Want to be the first person to go around the moon in four decades? It may already be too late. Space Adventures says one client has made a reservation for a circumlunar flight, and the company is in negotiations to sell the second and last open seat for as much as $150 million.

Eric Anderson, the Virginia-based company's chairman, provided fresh details about the round-the-moon mission today during a briefing to mark the 10th anniversary of the first tourist flight to the International Space Station, as well as the 50th anniversary of NASA's first manned spaceflight.

It's been known for some time that one well-heeled customer had signed up for the mission, which would include launch in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, a 10-day stay on the space station, a 3.5-day trip to slingshot around the moon and a 3.5-day return to Earth. But Anderson said he was "hopeful that a contract will be signed ... by the end of the year" for a second customer. That would fill out the mission's crew, which would be headed by a professional astronaut flying in the Soyuz's third seat.

If the scenario works out the way Anderson hopes, the three-person crew would make the trip by the end of 2015. He compared the adventure to California millionaire Dennis Tito's trip to the space station in 2001.

"The mission, in my mind, will be another watershed event," he said. "It's remarkable that a private company will be able to work in the market and finance what is likely to be humanity's first return to the moon in what will, at that time, be 45 years."

When the circumlunar trip was first offered in 2005, the price tag was $100 million. But since then, Anderson noted that the cost of Soyuz seats has gone up, due to currency adjustments and inflation as well as the fact that the Russians currently enjoy a monopoly when it comes to orbital passenger service. "The fact of the matter is that the price could realistically be $120 million per person, and it could be up to $150 million per person," he said.

The customer who has signed up already is planning to do more than just gaze out the window, although Anderson wouldn't get into the specifics. He said only that the mission "is something that is going to address an issue and a concept that is of great importance to the world."

"It will be something that captivates a lot of people," he said. "I really do look forward to our ability to announce that."

In addition to talking about the customers, Anderson revealed more about the Russians' plan for the round-the-moon flight: In addition to the Soyuz, a Block-DM upper stage and an extra habitation module would be launched into orbit. After the Soyuz finishes up its zero-G familiarization visit to the International Space Station, it would dock with the other modules, forming a complex capable of taking on the seven-day circumlunar odyssey.

The addition of the habitation module's 18 cubic meters of volume "basically doubles the size of the Soyuz on the inside," Anderson said.

"You can think of it in many ways as your miniature space station that you take along with you," said Richard Garriott, a millionaire video-game developer who took a trip to the space station in 2008 and now serves as Space Adventures' vice chairman.

Anderson said there would "certainly be a test flight" before paying passengers are brought aboard. That test would come a few months to a year before the big-money flight. "Whether it's an unmanned or manned flight is yet to be decided," Anderson said.

Today's briefing was an opportunity for Anderson and Garriott to reflect on the past, present and future of space tourism, 10 years after Tito's then-controversial visit to the International Space Station. Six people have followed in Tito's expensive footsteps, and one of those six — software billionaire Charles Simonyi — has gone twice. All eight flights have been accommodated on Russian spacecraft, with Space Adventures serving as a broker. The going rate for 10-day trips to the space station has risen from an estimated $20 million in Tito's day to $40 million or more today.

Anderson said he expects the price to stay in the range of $20 million to $50 million for the next decade. Based on an analysis of the market, he also expects 140 people to purchase trips into orbit between now and 2020 — either to the International Space Station, or to one of two commercial space stations. Anderson speculated that one station would be backed by a U.S. commercial entity, while the other would be backed by the Russians. (The likeliest U.S.-based suspect is Bigelow Aerospace, which has already launched two test modules and plans to put another inflatable module into orbit by around 2014.)

Anderson said Space Adventures' analysis, which was prepared for NASA and the Boeing Co., does not count NASA astronauts or other government-supported spacefliers among the 140 projected customers. Space Adventures is hoping to get a healthy share of that private market, either by working with the Russians or by selling seats on Boeing's planned CST-100 orbital crew capsule.

Here are a few other highlights from the briefing:

  • If private space companies developed truly reusable spacecraft for orbital trips, "that could be a game-changer," bringing down the cost of passenger space travel significantly, Anderson said.
  • Anderson said Russia's space agency is planning to build a next-generation space vehicle capable of carrying four to six people to orbit. That spaceship could be ready by "2017 or so," he said.
  • Anderson estimated that about 150 to 200 people were on Space Adventures' list for suborbital spaceflights. Space Adventures is working with Armadillo Aerospace to develop a craft that could take passengers on suborbital space rides for $102,000. Other players in the suborbital space market include Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin.
  • Although Anderson is generally loath to identify future orbital spacefliers, he made an exception today: "There's at least one person who will plan on flying into orbit in the next decade, and that’s me," he said.

How about you? Feel free to reflect on the future of private spaceflight in the comment section below.

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