This week’s trip to the international space station serves as the big payoff for millionaire passenger Greg Olsen — but it also represents a big payday for Space Adventures, the Arlington, Va.-based firm that arranged three multimillion-dollar trips to the station and is planning for much, much more.
In the seven years since its founding, the privately held company has built a business out of sending a select few clients to the orbital frontier, and putting many more through spaceflight experiences on Earth — ranging from tours of Russian space facilities to zero-gravity flights.
Space Adventures' next giant leap would be finding some ultra-deep-pocketed clients who are willing to pay $100 million a seat to fly around the moon and back in a souped-up version of the same Soyuz craft the Russians used to send Olsen to the space station. It may sound like pure science fiction — but Eric Anderson, the company's president and chief executive officer, says the venture has a good chance of moving forward.
"We've got several real candidates for that project," he told MSNBC.com. "I'm confident that we will find candidates for that program."
As usual, Anderson is keeping mum about the identities of those candidates. Over the years, Anderson has learned to stay quiet about his high-profile prospects until the contracts are signed and the money is coming in.
Turning a profit
Another thing Space Adventures doesn't talk about is how much the company gets out of the reported $20 million fare for flying to the station, after Russia's Federal Space Agency takes its share. But Anderson will say that the "biggest portion" of Space Adventures' revenue comes from its fee for arranging space station trips, even though the "biggest number of customers come for space training and space experiences on Earth."
He's also willing to say that the company is doing quite well, thank you very much.
"Right now we're not actively seeking investors," Anderson said. "We're profitable now, and we have investors."
Among those investors are former astronauts, travel executives and computer industry types such as Richard Garriott (son of a Skylab astronaut as well as a millionaire game developer) and Esther Dyson (daughter of the physicist Freeman Dyson as well as a venture capitalist).
The company has expanded just in the past few months, opening up a Tokyo sales office as well as a small operation in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to track developments in the commercial spaceflight market.
Smooth sailing for space passengers
The space station passenger business has come a long way since California millionaire Dennis Tito became the first customer back in 2000. Tito seemed to face setbacks at every turn: He started out dealing with Amsterdam-based MirCorp for a ride to Russia's Mir station, but switched over to Space Adventures after the Russians decided to send Mir to its doom — pulling the rug out from under MirCorp in the process.
Then NASA tried to get Tito kicked off the flight, on one occasion barring him from training at Johnson Space Center. In the end, NASA agreed only grudgingly to let Tito into the space station.
"Tito's ability to enjoy the training and plan for his spaceflight was eclipsed by wondering whether or not he was able to go," Anderson recalled.
Since then, NASA and Russia's space agency have agreed on a procedure for accepting paying passengers, and space tourists (or, to call them by their official title, spaceflight participants) now sign contracts with both agencies.
In 2002, South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth's trip to the space station went smoothly, and Olsen says NASA has been consistently supportive of his mission. Although NASA isn't planning to get into the tourism business itself, the agency thinks it's just fine for the Russians to do so.
"It's where we want to go," astronaut Jim Newman, director of NASA's human spaceflight program in Russia, told MSNBC.com. "We want to make space accessible to as many people as possible."
Rising price tag for orbital flight?
Anderson said he has more candidates in the pipeline for future orbital trips: There's a firm contract with the Russians for a spot on a Soyuz spaceship next year, and a "preliminary understanding" for a flight in 2007. One candidate's name has even leaked out, despite Anderson's best efforts: Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto is reportedly on deck for next year's flight.
But there's a problem on the horizon. The continuing problems with the space shuttle mean that the Soyuzes are currently the only vehicles cleared for taking people back and forth to the station, and that is putting a squeeze on those Soyuz seats.
"The Russians have a lot of people they need to fly on Soyuzes," Anderson said. "We need to find a way to get more Soyuzes flying to the station. We're working on that also."
The ideal answer would be to double the number of Soyuzes going to the station every year, from the current two to four, Anderson said. But that won't come cheap: Even though the Russians can launch Soyuzes at perhaps a tenth the cost of a shuttle flight, that's still serious money. In August, Russian news media reported that Moscow was planning to charge NASA $65 million for Soyuz launches starting next year.
"Until someone can come up with a better way to take people to orbit than the Soyuz, the price is going to go up," Anderson said.
Rising competition in suborbital flight?
In contrast, Anderson expects the cost of sending tourists into suborbital space to come down in future years, as competition and economies of scale come into play. Space Adventures is talking with several of the companies who are working on suborbital spaceships, and Anderson said he has a client list of "pretty close to 200" people so ready to take a ride to the edge of space they've put down a deposit.
"We had about 10 [sign up] last week," he said during the mid-September interview with MSNBC.com. "In Japan, some people are paying in full."
Anderson estimated that it would be 2007 or 2008 at the earliest before any of the spaceships begin service, but that at least three or four companies will be offering suborbital packages by 2012. "It certainly won't be just Virgin Galactic, I know that," he said.
And by that time, perhaps that round-the-moon trip just might be a reality as well.
Of course, not all of Space Adventures' business plans have panned out. For example, the state of Florida nixed a proposal to set up a suborbital space lottery, citing focus-group studies showing that winners would want to take the money instead. And Space Adventures hasn't yet come up with a long-rumored deal for a space-based reality-TV show. (The latest reports from Hollywood focus on a faux space-camp project code-named "X Quest.")
But Anderson isn't deterred by space dreams deferred. He said he feels his work at Space Adventures is more than just a job.
"I got into this because I feel it's very important for the future of humanity," he said. "It is the epitome of what we look for in the future, in terms of what's positive, what inspires us, what sparks our curiosity. Any type of exploration is not only good for the pocketbook — it's good for the soul."