Space Adventures is back in vogue – and aiming to go beyond orbital tourism

Charles Simonyi
Space Adventures facilitated two trips to the International Space Station for Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures)

More than 17 years after Space Adventures put its first millionaire client in orbit, and nearly nine years after getting its last one launched, the company is raising its profile in the commercial space game once more.

And this time, it’s aiming to be more than just a travel agent for the final frontier.

Virginia-based Space Adventures got its start in the late ’90s, and scored a coup in 2001 when it helped California millionaire Dennis Tito get to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Six more spaceflight participants followed, and Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi went twice.

But the phase-out and retirement of the space shuttle fleet tightened up the market for Soyuz seats so much that Space Adventures’ last ride was sold in 2009. (Star soprano Sarah Brightman was due to fly in 2015 but had to bow out.)

For a time, the company sought to sell rides on a customized Soyuz that would go around the moon and back, for a list price of $150 million a seat. That effort fizzled as well. (Court filings show that Austrian-born investor-adventurer Harald McPike paid a deposit for the trip and is now trying to get his money back.)

A lot of what Space Adventures has been doing over the past decade relates to Zero Gravity Corp., a venture that was acquired in 2008. Zero Gravity uses a converted Boeing 757 in parabolic flights that provide doses of weightlessness for NASA researchers, filmmakers and thrill-seekers (including the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who took a high-profile trip).

Now NASA has given Space Adventures a new task: It’s one of 13 companies that will be getting as much as $1 million each to draw up studies focusing on the future of commercial spaceflight in low Earth orbit.

“With our expertise in commercial space projects, we will quantify the markets for spaceflight services on an orbital station that would include tourism, government spaceflight programs, in-space manufacturing and satellite manufacturing and deployment,” Space Adventures’ president, Tom Shelley, said in an statement emailed to GeekWire last week.

Space Adventures will be working in partnership with Made In Space, a California-based venture focusing on 3-D printing and robotic assembly in the space environment. Shelley said Made In Space “will conduct a detailed assessment of the in-space manufacturing and materials processing market.”

“We will also consider how all of these varied markets could be serviced on a single habitat,” Shelley said. “And in December, we will submit recommendations on how to quantify this opportunity, evaluate technical concepts for low-cost habitation, and describe a viable and sustainable business case in LEO.”

Space Adventures is also partnering with Radiant Solutions, a data analysis firm that has veteran space lawyer Mike Gold as general counsel. Last week, Gold was named to head up a new committee for the NASA Advisory Council, focusing on space commercialization.

The study that’s currently underway could give Space Adventures a leg up as the opportunities to take on paying space passengers return, thanks to the development of commercial space taxis for the space station.

Over the next year, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule are both due to start ferrying NASA astronauts to and from the space station. And NASA officials made sure to include a clause in the contracts allowing both companies to sell extra seats to other customers, as long as the space agency has a say.

Space Adventures already has an agreement with Boeing to sell seats on the Starliner, thanks to talks that took place back in 2010. Four years later, Boeing’s John Mulholland confirmed that saving a spot for Space Adventures was part of the deal with NASA. He told Reuters that the price would be competitive with the $52 million that the Russians were charging at the time. (The price has gone up since then.)

Shelley didn’t address the Boeing connection in his emailed statement, but Gold briefly delved into the nuts and bolts of passenger spaceflight with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when the NASA Advisory Council met last week.

Gold said his committee would work with SpaceX and Boeing “to explore equitable methods … to utilize excess seats for commercial activities, and for reimbursed funds from those activities to be leveraged by the agency, potentially to purchase volume and/or services on private-sector habitats on the ISS or free-flying space stations.”

Previously: Commercial branding on NASA spacecraft? It could happen

Bridenstine acknowledged that some of the ideas for commercializing space operations might be provocative, and emphasized that the space agency has not yet made any firm decisions on new initiatives. But he signaled that NASA is already looking at ways to get a piece of the profit, just as Russia’s space agency benefited from the fees paid by Space Adventures’ past clients.

“If our commercial crew partners have seven seats, how to we take advantage of those seven seats for them in a way that helps their bottom line and at the same time offsets our costs?” Bridenstine asked. “And is that feasible? Is it possible legally and regulatorily?”

If all goes according to plan, the next 12 months could well see the first launches of suborbital space passengers, on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship. Will a new crop of customers take space commercialization to the next level? And what role will NASA play?

“It will happen,” Gold said. “The question is, will it happen in America?”