Software designer pays $35M for trip to space

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On March 26, U.S. software designer Charles Simonyi will make history by becoming the first private explorer to complete a second visit to space.

The 60-year-old Simonyi will be Space Adventures’ seventh private orbital space traveler when he blasts off for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Soyuz TMA spacecraft from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. He was also its fifth client when he visited the ISS in spring 2007.

Space Adventures, headquartered in Vienna, Va., with an office in Moscow, is inarguably the world’s leading space-experiences company. It has a longstanding arrangement with the Russians, who have been selling the extra seats on their Soyuz spacecraft to raise cash.

This time around, Simonyi paid $35 million for the trek, which will take him 240 miles above the Earth’s surface to the ISS for a second, 12-day visit.

Simonyi’s flight marks the end of private citizen ride-alongs on an official Russian space mission as Russia acts to double the Soyuz’s crew size and to fulfill increasing demand for limited seats, including interest from NASA, which will retire its space shuttle in 2010.

To ensure its continued lead in the space tourism market, Space Adventures reached an agreement with the Federal Space Agency (FSA) of the Russian Federation to privately charter a Soyuz rocket ship for the as-yet-unscheduled launch of two passengers and one Russian commander to the ISS in the latter half of 2011.

This private, fully dedicated mission will include a package of mission services including science, education and media program options. The first private mission to the ISS is offered not only to individual explorers but also to businesses, organizations and institutions.

The flight profile is catered to the individual’s or entity’s specifications, so there is no set retail price for the mission, according to Stacey Tearne, vice president of communications for Space Adventures.

"We have several individuals/entities interested in this private mission, and at the appropriate time we will announce the participants," Tearne said.

Under its arrangement with the FSA, Space Adventures will contribute to the increase of launch capacity to the space station, demonstrating its long-term commitment to contract for additional private missions through the lifespan of the ISS, according to the company.

Space Adventures’ arrangement with the FSA put to rest rumors that Russia’s withdrawal from the space tourism business would leave the company unable to continue operating.

"For the last decade, Space Adventures’ orbital spaceflight program has provided the only opportunity for private individuals to fly in space, conduct research in a sustained zero gravity environment and experience the beauty of seeing the Earth from humanity’s only orbiting outpost," said Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures. "Now our orbital program is expanding with more opportunities for spaceflight missions into the next decade."

Space Adventures became world renowned in 2001 with the launch of client Dennis Tito, the world’s first privately funded spaceflight passenger.

Last June, Space Adventures introduced its Orbital Mission Explorers Circle, a program that allows individuals to reserve seats on future orbital spaceflights. Passengers have the option to fly to orbit as their schedule allows with preferential access to mission seats, or they can opt to sell their seat to another private astronaut.

Sergey Brin, cofounder and president of technology for Google, became the founding member of the recently established Founding Explorer group by placing a $5 million deposit on a future orbital spaceflight.

Like-minded individuals who wish to apply to join Brin as a Founding Explorer in the Orbital Mission Explorers Circle will be required to make a $5 million deposit as well, which will be credited toward their eventual space mission.

Zero-G

For those whose financial fortunes are merely stratospheric, there's Zero Gravity Group, or Zero-G. Space Adventures early in 2008 increased its equity stake to full ownership of the company, the only FAA-approved provider of weightless flight to the general public.

The purchase of Florida- and Las Vegas-based Zero-G enables Space Adventures to provide a full range of exclusive commercial spaceflight services, from parabolic flights to orbital missions, according to Peter Diamandis, CEO of Zero-G.

The Zero-G weightless experience is considered to be entry-level space tourism and is available for individuals who are at least 8 years old.

Diamandis cofounded Zero-G in 1993 with veteran astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and NASA engineer Ray Cronise. In 1998, Diamandis and Anderson cofounded Space Adventures.

Anderson said the full acquisition of Zero-G strengthens Space Adventures’ position as the only operational commercial spaceflight services company and permits the company to provide a range of exclusive spaceflight services.

"Because the Zero-G experience is available to the public at such a reasonable price point, we’ll enable tens of thousands of people to take part in one of the most exhilarating aspects of spaceflight: weightlessness," Anderson said.

Since 2004, Zero-G has flown more than 5,000 passengers. This year, the company plans to fly up to 100 flights, which equals approximately 4,000 additional guests.

The Zero-G Weightless Experience is $4,950 per person plus 5% tax. For this experience, the plane never leaves Earth’s atmosphere but flies at the same altitude as any commercial flight while performing 15 parabolic maneuvers that create more than seven minutes of weightlessness in 30-second intervals.

Meanwhile, Space Adventures has taken more than 200 reservations for future, unscheduled suborbital flights, at $102,000 per person. The cost of the suborbital program includes a spacesuit, all meals, transportation to and from all facilities, luxury hotel accommodations and $4,000 cancellation insurance.

Space Adventures’ suborbital flights will travel 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, commonly called the edge of space. Passengers will spend 90 minutes onboard and experience up to five minutes of continuous weightlessness.

Future plans call for Space Adventures to buy its own spacecraft. Tearne said the company is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration and developers.

"The suborbital industry is still coming together," Tearne said. "We’re not at the point of saying who we’re going to be working with. Everything is very fluid."

Click here to read Margaret Myre's feature on space tourism.

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