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As Apollo 11 anniversary draws nigh, Space Adventures preps private lunar voyage

Tom Shelley of Space Adventures
Tom Shelley of Space Adventures
Photo by Thos Robinson

As the 45th anniversary of the voyage of Apollo 11 draws nigh, one of the most under reported recent news in space tourism, and therefore one of the most exciting, is the announcement that Space Adventures now has two customers willing to put down $150 million each for a trip around the moon. It would be the first time humans have ventures beyond low Earth orbit in decades

Space Adventures has been taking the well-heeled and adventurous to the International Space Station on board Russian Soyuz spacecraft since 2001 when Dennis Tito flew. Other clients have included video game millionaire Richard Garriott, incidentally the son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott, and Iranian American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari. British singer Sarah Brightman will be the next visitor to the ISS.

Trips to low Earth orbit have become routine, almost absurdly so to anyone whose memories extend back to the first NASA and Soviet flights in the 1960s. But a trip around the moon is a far different matter. No human being has been beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 returned from the lunar surface in December, 1972. That the next human beings to fly to the vicinity of the moon will be paying customers of a private company, albeit flying in a Russian national spacecraft, is only fitting in the new era in which private space travel is the in thing.

Just as the venture looks to be financially doable, it also seems to be technologically doable. The mission will start when the two paying customers will take off in a Soyuz modified for deep space flight. Once in Earth orbit it will rendezvous and dock with a booster rocket attached to a habitation module. The rocket will blast the Soyuz and the hab module out of Earth orbit and on a course that it cause it to loop around the moon and then return to Earth. The flight will be similar to the one Apollo 13 took when an explosion cancelled its lunar landing mission/

The three space travelers will transfer to the habitation module and will spend most of the voyage in relative comfort. The best moment will come when the rocky, blasted landscape of the moon will fill the windows of the module, with views not seen by human eyes in over four decades. The ship will pass behind the moon and then reemerge. The space travelers will see the iconic Earthrise, a sight that first awed the entire world in 1968 during the flight of Apollo 8.

Then the ship will head back toward Earth. At a certain point, the space travelers will transfer back to the Soyuz. They will separate from the hab module, and will enter the atmosphere, landing back on Earth.

Ever since the end of the Apollo program, politicians have been trying to jump start deep space exploration that the United States abandoned in the early 1970s. Two presidents named George Bush tried and failed to start programs that would take astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proposed a lunar base during the 2012 presidential campaign and was laughed out of town. The current deep space effort, which is aimed at an asteroid, is mired in political wrangling and inadequate funding. The National Research Council recently issued a report sharply criticizing the Obama era effort.

What political arguments have failed to produce, cold, hard cash seems to be about to summon into being. Space Adventures found two people, thus far not identified, who were willing to pay a lot of money for the journey of a lifetime. With the same inducement it was able to persuade the Russians to provide the hardware to make it happen.

The only thing that might derail this private return to the moon is the current tensions surrounding Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine. The Russian Space Agency has recently disavowed the lunar mission. It is apparently proceeding as an entirely private joint project between Space Adventures and Russia’s Energia Rocket and Space Corporation.

Unless the Russian government moves to stop it it looks like the private venture to the moon is a go. What the effects will be cannot be well predicted. Whether it leads to more private trips to the moon and perhaps beyond or shames certain countries out of their space torpor remains to be seen. In any case, exciting times in space travel lies ahead.

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