You don't have to pack your bags quite yet, but passenger travel to the moon is on the flight manifest of a space tourist company.
The price per seat will slap your wallet or purse for a swift $100 million — but you'll have to get in line as the first voyage is already booked.
Space Adventures, headquartered in Vienna, Virginia, is in negotiations with the customers who will fly the first private expedition to circumnavigate the moon.
"I hope to have those contracts signed by the end of the year," said Eric Anderson, Space Adventures' president and CEO.
Anderson outlined the future for his space travel firm during Flight School, a workshop for commercial space and private aviation ventures, held here June 20-22 at the Aspen Institute.
Lunar leap: free-return
A Space Adventures team has blueprinted a circumlunar mission using a unique blend of existing and flight-tested Russian technology. At the heart of the lunar leap is Russia's venerable Soyuz spacecraft. A pilot and two passengers would depart Earth in their Soyuz, linking up in orbit with an unpiloted kick stage for a boost outward to the moon.
"The Soyuz was originally designed as a circumlunar spacecraft. It hasn't flown with people around the moon, of course. But the Soyuz would fly a free-return trajectory — a boomerang course — around the moon. So there's not a lot that needs to be done to the Soyuz to accommodate for that... it could probably fly around the moon right now," Anderson told SPACE.com. "There will be some upgrades to the communications systems... and we would make the window bigger too."
Anderson said that the Soyuz pilot and two passengers would not go into lunar orbit. "That comes later," he added, as a follow-on public space travel trek.
A practice run of mission hardware in unpiloted mode is likely, Anderson continued, "so we would test it all out, even though we think we could do it [the expedition] without a test flight."
The two-passenger, $100 million per couch flight adds up to a $200 million mission.
"I personally think that it's the biggest thing in private spaceflight. It would change the way the whole world thinks about private spaceflight. It is definitely doable for under the $200 million price tag," Anderson explained, thereby signaling a radical reduction in cost of any past piloted lunar flight.
Sales are up
Space Adventures is no stranger to liftoffs of public space traffic. It bills itself as "the world's leading space experiences company," with a flight record to prove it.
Among its offerings, the group has handled five private space trips to the international space station. For example, in April of this year, Charles Simonyi took advantage of their services, as did Anousheh Ansari last September. They joined the ranks of fellow private space trekkers, Greg Olsen, Mark Shuttleworth, and Dennis Tito — each spending roughly $20 million to $25 million for their sendoffs into the heavens.
Sales are up for future public hops to the orbiting outpost. Customers are lined up for Soyuz seats to the space station in 2008, in 2009, and potentially beyond, Anderson said.
"We're trying to talk to the Russian Space Agency about how to increase the numbers of Soyuz flights to the space station. It is scheduled to go from two to four in late 2009... but there may be ways to increase the number of Soyuz flights even beyond that in the future," Anderson noted. "My confidence level is high," he said, that those seats can be filled with customers.
"I do believe that the Soyuz will be for many years, maybe not the only, but certainly the most reliable way to get to orbit," Anderson pointed out. "So it's important for us to continue to expand that business. I think that the market can bear five or 10 seats per year."
Spacewalking on tap
Anderson said that he has been in the personal space travel business for nearly a decade.
To date, Space Adventures has sold almost $200 million worth of spaceflights. They've booked flights into the future, even selling a couple more than the company has announced. Their clients have spent some 60 days cumulatively in Earth orbit, Anderson said.
And there remains another exploit for the public space traveler to master — a space walk.
"I'm hoping that will happen in 2009," Anderson said. "We have conditional approval from the Russian Space Agency to be able to pull this off."
Given the right client matched with the right training requirements, "I think for a private citizen to go out and do a spacewalk would be huge," Anderson said. "Of course it'll have to be approved by NASA and by everyone else. This person will be very well trained...go outside the airlock and kind of hang around for an hour or two... then come back in."