Space Adventures, the company that brokered trips to the International Space Station for seven private citizens between 2001 and 2009, announced an agreement Tuesday with SpaceX to launch up to four space tourists aboard the California rocket builder's Crew Dragon capsule by mid 2022.
The privately financed Crew Dragon fliers would launch from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, but will not visit the space station, Space Adventures said. Instead, they will soar to a record high orbit, enjoying a view of Earth that has not been seen since NASA's Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
"Creating unique and previously impossible opportunities for private citizens to experience space is why Space Adventures exists," company chairman Eric Anderson said in a statement. "This Dragon mission will be a special experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity, capable of reaching twice the altitude of any prior civilian astronaut mission or space station visitor."
SpaceX is in the final stages of readying a Crew Dragon capsule for launch in May, it is believed, to carry two NASA astronauts to the space station. The historic mission will be the first piloted U.S. spaceflight since the shuttle's final mission in July 2011.
Boeing also is building a crew ferry ship — the CST-100 Starliner — as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, an initiative aimed at developing new U.S. spacecraft the government would hire, in a sense, but not own. Space Adventures signed an agreement with Boeing in 2010 to offer unused Starliner seats to private citizens for visits to the space station.
At that time, Boeing said the first NASA flight was expected in the 2015 timeframe. In the wake of a problematic unpiloted test flight last December, it is not known when Boeing will carry out its own piloted test flight or when seats might be available for private citizens. But the agreement with Space Adventures is still in effect.
While both the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft feature fully autonomous flight control systems, station-bound NASA astronauts will have the ability to take over manual control if necessary. For private, non-NASA free flights like the ones Space Adventures plans with the Crew Dragon, missions presumably would be controlled from the ground and would not require an experienced pilot-astronaut.
In any case, the first private flight aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon "will forge a path to making spaceflight possible for all people who dream of it, and we are pleased to work with the Space Adventures' team on the mission," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said in the Space Adventures statement.
How much will it cost?
The cost of a ticket is not yet known, but it will not be cheap.
The NASA Inspector General, in a report issued last November, estimated the government's cost per seat aboard a Crew Dragon, assuming four astronauts per flight and six contracted round trips to the station, is roughly $55 million each. Boeing's cost per seat was estimated to be around $90 million. NASA has been paying more than $80 million per seat to fly astronauts aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Space Adventures brokered eight Soyuz fights to the space station by seven private citizens — one flew twice — between 2001 and 2009. Another seven, including Sarah Brightman and Lance Bass, trained for flights, but never made it into space.
Commercial costs were not revealed, but Dennis Tito, the first Space Adventures Soyuz client, reportedly paid $20 million for a trip to the station in 2001. Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil and the most recent Space Adventures Soyuz client, reportedly paid $35 million for his trip to the space station in 2009.
Laliberte and other space tourists who flew aboard the Soyuz faced months of training in Russia to familiarize them with Soyuz and space station system. Anderson said only a few weeks of U.S.-based training would be required for a flight aboard an autonomous Crew Dragon spacecraft.
"Help us create the future of private spaceflight," Space Adventures says in a YouTube video. "Fly farther from Earth than anyone in the last 50 years. Expected launch: late-2021 to mid-2022 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA. Flight duration: up to five days. Training: a few weeks conducted in the USA."
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