In ‘Paradigm’ Shift, Space Adventures Sells Two Tickets on Same Soyuz Flight

Google Co-Founder Brin to Fly; Invests $5 Million to Join Exclusive Club of One

Space Adventures announced a deal with the Russian Space Agency on Wednesday to charter one Soyuz flight annually to the International Space Station beginning in 2011.

The flights will include one Russian cosmonaut and two paying tourists. Previously, space tourists have occupied the third seat on flights that swapped out older Soyuz vehicles attached to the station. The privately-funded mission will be conducted outside of the normal rotation of spacecraft and crews to and from the orbiting outpost, officials said.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin may occupy one of the two tourist seats on the 2011 flight. He has invested $5 million in Space Adventures, money that serves as a down payment on a space fight. The flight will apparently cost in excess of $35 million.

Brin is now the founding (and, to date, only) member of the new Orbital Mission Explorers Circle, which represent an effort “to build a definitive consortium of future private space explorers who share a lifetime goal of orbital spaceflight or the investment therein,” Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson said. The circle will eventually include six members.

Brin’s investment represents Google’s deepening involvement in the growing commercial space industry. The Internet search giant is sponsoring a robotic race to the moon, the Google Lunar X Prize, and recently announced a deal with NASA Ames Research Center to build a research park on the facility’s land.

Anderson announced the deal during a press conference at The Explorer’s Club in New York. He said chartering a spaceflight means that “we become a space mission company, not simply a seller of seats,” according to a New York Times story.

Dr. John Logsdon, director of The George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told The Times that the flight represented a “different paradigm.” It could assist NASA in determining what to pay for Soyuz missions, he added. The agency will be dependent upon Russian Soyuz vehicles for transportation to ISS after the space shuttle is retired in 2010 and before its successor, Orion, flies around 2015.

The retirement of the shuttle, and the pending expansion of the ISS crew from three to six astronauts, has created logistical and supply challenges for the Russian space program. Russian officials had been saying for months that the extra seat aboard Soyuz flights they had been selling to tourists would likely disappear after the shuttle’s retirement in 2010.

The privately-funded missions appear to solve that problem, although they could creatives problems of their own. The last two Soyuz flights experienced rough landings, sparking concerns about Russian quality control and its ability to ramp up spacecraft production to meet the increased demand. Russia has been experiencing a wave of space worker retirements, with a resulting loss of expertise.

Will the extra funding help alleviate problems or exacerbate them? And what, if any, additional operating costs might be incurred by station partners from temporarily expanding the crew size to nine? Will the private funding cover those costs?

The mission profile has sparked media speculation that the eventual destination of the flights would be the Moon. Space Adventures is planning to send Soyuz vehicles on circumlunar flights with one pilot and two tourists. The complicated mission profile involves a stay aboard ISS.

Anderson said the company expected to begin lunar flights within five years. However, he did not link the Moon plan to the first ISS mission in 2011.