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Google co-founder aims for space

Reuters file
Google co-founder Sergey

Brin has his eye on space.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has put down $5 million toward a flight to the international space station with the company that has sent millionaires and even a billionaire into orbit.

Virginia-based Space Adventures announced the identity of the future space traveler as well as its vision for the next decade of space tourism at a New York news conference today.

As part of the deal, Brin paid a $5 million deposit to Space Adventures, which would secure him a spot on the future Russian Soyuz flight to the station. The price tag for such a trip has run from $20 million (or less) to $35 million (or more). Thus, if Brin goes through with the purchase, he'll be paying millions more in the years to come.

Space Adventures' co-founder and chief executive officer, Eric Anderson, said Brin could choose to fly as early as three years from now, or 2011.

He said Brin would be the first of six founding members of an "Orbital Mission Explorers Circle" who would be granted access to future flights in return for the $5 million deposit. In a follow-up phone call, Anderson told me that another would-be space traveler - whom he would not name - contacted him just minutes after today's news conference. "I spoke to the person, who just signed up for the No. 2 spot," he said.

The company reached an agreement last month with Russia's space agency to purchase a Soyuz flight exclusively for its own purposes in 2011, and that would be the first opportunity for members of the Explorers Circle to fly, Anderson said. Two spots on that flight would be available for paying passengers, with a professional Russian cosmonaut in the driver's seat.

Space Adventures' arrangement for the 2011 flight is different from how the company has handled its other multimillion-dollar trips - which involved tagging along on a regularly scheduled "taxi flight" to the station. "We will be the first company to undertake a private mission to the international space station," Anderson said.

The 34-year-old Brin, who founded Google along with Stanford schoolmate Larry Page a decade ago, was the moving force behind his company's sponsorship of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. That competition would reward the first teams to put a privately funded probe on the moon.

Brin and Page have long been fans of the space effort.

"I am a big believer in the exploration and commercial development of the space frontier, and am looking forward to the possibility of going into space," Space Adventures quoted Brin as saying. "Space Adventures helped open the space frontier to private citizens and thus pave the way for the personal spaceflight industry. The Orbital Mission Explorers Circle enables me to make an immediate investment while preserving the option to participate in a future spaceflight."

If he goes through with the flight, Brin could become the richest human to go into space. He ranks as the fifth-richest American on Forbes magazine's 2007 list, with an estimated net worth of $18.5 billion.

Looking back, looking ahead

Space Adventures used today's news briefing as an occasion to celebrate its 10th anniversary in the space tourism business - and look ahead to the next 10 years.

The company reached orbit in 2001 when it brokered the precedent-setting spaceflight of Dennis Tito, a California-based investment adviser whose trip to the international space station shook up NASA officials. After Tito's trip, the space agency was more accepting of Russia's millionaire spaceflight participants, all of whom were Space Adventures clients:

Its sixth orbital client, video-game guru Richard Garriott, is due to fly to the station in October. Garriott will become the first son of a NASA astronaut (Owen Garriott) to go into space himself.

Space Adventures also has a seat reserved on a Soyuz flight scheduled for next April, and Anderson said the customer for that seat would be named later this year. 

As Space Adventures' orbital successes have piled up, the company has raised its sights: In 2005, the company announced that it would offer trips around the moon, at a cost of $100 million a ticket, and in 2006 it listed a $15 million spacewalk option for its clients.

Garriott told reporters that he had been working on plans to do a spacewalk during his October trip, but "unfortunately, those have not manifested." As for the moon trips, the company hopes to fly at least one customer sometime in the next five years, said Peter Diamandis, who is a co-founder of Space Adventures as well as the founder of Zero Gravity Corp. and the chairman of the X Prize Foundation.

Although Space Adventures started out as a space tourism company, it's turned into something much more, Anderson said. "Space tourism isn't really the right word for what we do. ... This is private space exploration," he said.

The company has had its hands in suborbital and zero-gravity flight as well as orbital adventures: Just in the past couple of years, Space Adventures announced deals with the Russians to build a suborbital passenger spaceship, as well as deals with Singaporean investors and Arab sheiks to build future international spaceports.

Anderson declined to discuss how much progress has been made on the spaceship development effort, although the Russians have acknowledged that they're working on a 16-person suborbital craft. Diamandis said that Space Adventures' international expansion plans would begin with zero-gravity airplane flights in Europe, the Persian Gulf states and Asia, most likely in cooperation with partners. Actual spaceport development would come later, he said.

Space Adventures' most recent milestone came this year when it completed its acquisition of Diamandis' Zero Gravity Corp., which has emerged as the biggest commercial provider of weightlessness flights. Zero Gravity made a splash last year - and opened a new frontier for adventurers with disabilities - when it gave world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking a generous taste of zero-G.

Someday, Hawking hopes to take an even more ambitious ride on a suborbital spaceship - most likely Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson. That hints at the challenges Space Adventures may encounter if the personal spaceflight revolution takes off the way the company's founders hope.

Questions for the future

Virgin Galactic has the edge in the race to offer suborbital space tourism, due to Branson's billions as well as the track record of SpaceShipTwo's design team. The list of competitors includes other companies headed by billionaires or millionaires, such as Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceX and PlanetSpace. Will those deep-pocketed companies give Space Adventures a run for its money - or will they end up being partners?

"We will choose to partner with one of them" sometime in the next couple of years, once suborbital spaceflights become a commercial reality, Diamandis said.

Anderson said the quoted price for a suborbital flight was about $100,000 - the same as it has been for nearly a decade. He wouldn't entirely rule out adjusting that price upward when suborbital service actually starts, but he said "we've not changed it because I do believe that's the right price point."

To date, Space Adventures' orbital business has been the most lucrative part of the operation. But that business has depended on the Russians' sale of surplus seats on their Soyuz craft heading to the international space station. If the space shuttle fleet is retired as scheduled in 2010, the requirements for transporting crew members to and from the station could wipe out that surplus.

The arrangement announced today indicates that Space Adventures might find itself bidding against NASA (or other space agencies) for future seats on the Russian Soyuz craft. What will that do to the company's business model - and its currently cordial relationship with NASA?

If the Russians can ramp up production to deliver five Soyuz craft a year, that would probably accommodate NASA's requirements as well as Space Adventures' needs, NBC News space analyst James Oberg told me. But the last two Soyuz descents from the space station have been rockier than expected, and space officials are looking into whether the increased production has led to lapses in quality control.

"My concern is that the Russians are right now struggling to double the production rate, from two to four Soyuzes a year," Oberg said. "If the indications hold that these problems are fabrication oversights, then the idea of producing even four Soyuzes a year is problematic. On the other hand, it's a problem that must be solved. A paying customer has the clout to demand a solution — and to get more insight into the problems."

In response, Anderson said the Soyuz and the Russians have had a good safety record going back many years. "When you add it all together, I don't think this is anything that's really going to put a strain on them," he told me.

There's yet another cloudy scenario for the decade ahead: Suppose the economy takes a downturn, or suppose the space effort suffers another setback. Will the multimillion-dollar demand for space adventures hold up? Or will the grand visions laid out today by Space Adventures turn out to be as insubstantial as the visions laid out by Rotary Rocket in 1998, and MirCorp in 2000?

Fasten your seatbelts: To paraphrase Bette Davis in the movie "All About Eve," it's going to be a bumpy night ... or a bumpy decade.

Update for 3:40 p.m. ET June 11:Much has been made elsewhere about Space Adventures' plan to purchase an entire Soyuz mission - that is, two seats for paying passengers with a professional cosmonaut in the driver's seat. This isn't the first time that the "private mission" concept has come up, however. The company floated the idea five years ago, as noted in this archived story from 2003.

Update for 3:30 p.m. ET June 12: Russia's Itar-Tass news service quotes Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov as saying he has "no information" about plans to send Brin to the space station. Perminov also told Itar-Tass that there were no plans to send space tourists to the station after the yet-to-be-scheduled trips of two Kazakh cosmonauts.

Representatives of the space agencies supporting the station are to meet next month and decide when the station's long-term crew will go from three to six, Perminov said. That will increase the demand for Soyuz seats. "There is simply no room for space tourists," he was quoted as saying. "Space tourism will be suspended."

When I asked Anderson about this, he noted that Brin hasn't yet made a commitment for a specific space trip, so his name has not been passed along formally to the Russians. As for the remark about "no room for space tourists," Anderson said that comment should be interpreted in the context of Russia's plan to provide four Soyuzes a year for transferring space station crews.

Space Adventures' purchase of a Soyuz mission would be in addition to the crew transfer missions, he noted.

"This is nothing new," Anderson told me. "It's a discussion of the additional difficulty of providing spaceflight participant seats if the crew goes to six with only four Soyuzes."