SpaceX and Space Adventures plan to send customers on high-flying space trips

SpaceX astronaut in Dragon
SpaceX plans to put private citizens in the seats of its Crew Dragon spaceship. (SpaceX Photo via Space Adventures)

Space Adventures says it’s entered into an agreement with SpaceX to send private citizens into orbit on free-flying missions that would take them far above the International Space Station.

The first flight could take place as early as late 2021, carry up to four people on an autonomously piloted Crew Dragon spacecraft, and last up to five days, the Virginia-based company said in a news release and video about the arrangement. In advance of the mission, the spacefliers would undergo a few weeks of training in the U.S.

Today’s announcement follows up on governmental efforts to commercialize space operations in low Earth orbit, and on the Crew Dragon’s successful uncrewed demonstration mission to and from the space station last year.

In contrast to that test flight, the private mission wouldn’t involve a stopover at the space station, and NASA wouldn’t have a primary role in managing the mission. Space Adventures said the flight would be powered by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida — presumably from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which is set up for crewed flights.

We’ve reached out to NASA and will update this report with anything we hear back.

Space Adventures said the mission would go two to three times higher than the space station, which translates to roughly 500 to 750 miles in altitude. The spacefliers would “break the world altitude record for private citizen spaceflight and see planet Earth the way no one has since the Gemini program,” the company said in its news release.

For what it’s worth, Gemini 11 set a record for crewed orbital flight in 1966 with elliptical orbits that ranged as high as 850 miles. That height was exceeded, of course, when Apollo astronauts flew out to the moon and back — but that didn’t come during the Earth-orbiting phase of flight.

“This historic mission 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,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer.

Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, said the mission will be “a special experience and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Creating unique and previously impossible opportunities for private citizens to experience space is why Space Adventures exists,” he said.

Interest in the opportunity contributed to a temporary website outage for today. Anderson turned the glitch into a Twitter quip: “Don’t worry,” he tweeted. “Dragon is far more capable than our website.”

Between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures arranged eight weeklong trips to the International Space Station for seven customers traveling on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Seattle software executive Charles Simonyi liked his 2007 tour so much that he took another trip in 2009.

Once NASA decided to retire the space shuttle fleet in 2011, that tightened up on orbital travel opportunities. Space Adventures hasn’t flown a client in more than a decade. British singer Sarah Brightman had been lined up for a trip in 2015, at a reported price of $52 million, but she backed out due to personal reasons.

For a while, Space Adventures was also offering trips around the moon on a modified Soyuz craft, but couldn’t make it happen.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos once told me he was approached about the moon trip. “It was expensive, like $200 million or something,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but has it ever been tested?’ And they were like, ‘Well, no.’ … Maybe I’ll wait on that one.”

Space Adventures doesn’t talk about its prospective customers until they’re locked in — but a decade ago, lots of VIPs were said to be interested in buying a spaceflight, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin and film director James Cameron.

So how much will a ticket cost this time around? “The price of the mission will not be disclosed, but is in the range as other orbital spaceflight opportunities,” Space Adventures spokeswoman Stacey Tearne told me in an e-mail.

That would suggest something in the range of $52 million. That’s the price point that Bigelow Space Operations said it was targeting when it announced a similar arrangement with SpaceX last year. Axiom Space, meanwhile, has said it would charge around $55 million for a trip to the space station. All those figures are in line with NASA’s estimate that it’d cost $50 million for a privately purchased trip to the space station, not including the use of on-orbit resources.

Space Adventures also has a longstanding arrangement to put customers on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi once that’s cleared for human spaceflight. Last year, a Boeing spokesman told me the company was having “interesting conversations with a lot of potential customers.”

SpaceX is currently on track to start flying crews to the space station for NASA as early as this spring, which adds to Space Adventures’ confidence in the 2021-2022 schedule for its free-flying excursion. “No engineering achievement has consistently impressed the industry more than the Dragon / Falcon 9 reusable system,” Anderson said.

If $50 million or so for an orbital trip is out of your price range, there are less expensive suborbital options on the horizon: Virgin Galactic is holding reservations for more than 600 would-be fliers who have paid as much as $250,000 for flights on the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. After 15 years of development and testing, those flights are expected to begin later this year at Spaceport America in New Mexico, but Virgin Galactic is planning to raise its prices for new reservations.

Then there’s Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin. It has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., but has been testing its New Shepard suborbital spaceship in West Texas. Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin expects to start flying people this year. The first fliers will almost certainly be Blue Origin employees.

The company hasn’t yet set a ticket price or started taking reservations, but last year, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said the first rides won’t be cheap. “It’ll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially,” he said.

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