Virginia-based personal space flight provider Space Adventures has finalized a deal with the Russian space agency to offer three seats on Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS), starting in 2013.
The seats will be available because of Soyuz's increase from four to five spacecraft per year, Space Adventures says. Though the trips to the ISS will be relatively short - 10 days - the overall launch capacity of the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA) and Rocket Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) will increase.
"We are extremely excited to announce this agreement and would like to thank our Russian partners in increasing Soyuz production and providing Space Adventures these well sought-after transportation services on the only commercially available manned spacecraft currently in operation," says Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures.
Since its founding 10 years ago, Space Adventures has sent seven customers into space aboard the same Russian Soyuz spacecraft on which the US will rely for ISS trips between the final Shuttle mission and the first flight of the next-generation capsule, which is expected in 2015 at the earliest.
Space Adventures' most recent client was Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, who reportedly paid around $40 million for his 2009 12-day trip into orbit. But since that trip, Russia has limited trips on the three-seater spacecraft to professional astronauts only, as ISS crews have grown to six members at a time, leaving no empty Energia Soyuz spacecraft seats for non-governmental customers.
Anderson says Laliberte's high-profile trip increased interest in space travel for individuals, organisations and commercial entities in spite of the seat crunch.
"We have been speaking with these parties about science, education and multi-media programs and hope to make some major announcements in the coming year," Anderson says.
The addition of a fifth spacecraft and the increase in Soyuz flights will provide redundancy and more flexibility for trips to ISS, the Russians say.
"We welcome the opportunity to increase our efforts to meet the public demand for access to space," says Alexei Krasnov, Director of Human Spaceflight of FSA.
Space Adventures also has an agreement with Boeing make commercially available empty seats on the seven-passenger capsule Boeing is now developing to take crew members to ISS after the Space Shuttle programme shutters later this year.