BY JOSHUA FREED
MINNEAPOLIS — Boeing and a space tourism company announced a deal on Wednesday to sell tickets on rocket rides to the International Space Station. Now Boeing just has to build a spaceship.
Space Adventures has already been selling seats aboard the Russian-built Soyuz spaceship. Its last passenger was Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, who paid $35 million for a 10-day trip.
Now, Boeing says, Space Adventures will sell seats on its planned CST-100, which would carry seven people. NASA has been encouraging aerospace companies like Boeing to develop spaceships that can carry government-sponsored astronauts as well as paying tourists to the space station. The idea is to spread around the cost of NASA missions while also boosting privately funded space efforts.
Big questions remain. Congressional funding isn't assured. And Boeing and Space Adventures will have competition from a California company called SpaceX, which is also seeking NASA work for space station missions.
So far, seven customers have ridden on eight flights through Spacecraft Adventures.
The trips will be for millionaires, at least for now. Boeing and Space Adventures executives didn't have pricing details, but said on a conference call that prices would be "competitive" with the cost for a flight on the Soyuz craft.
The more people fly to space, the sooner the cost will come down, said Eric Anderson, co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures. He said people ask him when it will cost, say, $40,000, or $4,000, instead of close to $40 million.
"I don't know," he said, "but I know that it'll never be $40,000, or $4,000, if it doesn't start off at $40 million.... We'll get there. Until launch technology radically changes, the price is still going to be quite expensive."
Boeing's CST-100 is a reusable capsule with a round bottom and pointed top that, from the outside, bears some resemblance to the Apollo capsules launched beginning in the 1960s. Boeing is doing design and testing work now, and hopes to have the craft ready in 2015.
Boeing plans to build two at first, which would be used for testing and then refurbished for missions. Each spaceship would need about six months in between flights to have its heat shield restored and its systems tested, said John Elbon, vice president and program manager for Boeing Commercial Crew Transportation Systems.
"Together we can open space to more people, and expand a new market, and I find that terribly exciting," said Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut and vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division.
Anderson, of Space Adventures, said he's aiming to reduce the months of training that precede flights on the Soyuz craft, which includes Russian language training that won't be needed on the U.S.-led flights. He said shorter training will encourage more people to sign up, while still being sufficient to get them ready for the flight.
He objected to the notion that the people who accompany government-sponsored astronauts are "tourists."
"It's not the case that a bunch of people show up to the station in their flowered T-shirts with sunglasses on," he said. "I think this is much more about private citizens who are opening the frontier alongside government space explorers, and are doing so in a very serious fashion with lots of serious work behind it."
Still, the Cirque du Soleil founder wore a red clown nose on his trip.