According to a Sunday story in Spaceflight Now, Russian engineers are hard at work making modifications to the Soyuz space craft to prep it for a lunar voyage. Space Adventures, the space tourism company that has sponsored a number of private visits to the International Space Station, recently announced that it had sold two seats for a planned trip around the moon. Each seat costs $150 million. The identities of the two people destined to be the first travelers to venture beyond low Earth orbit in decades is being kept secret for the time being.
The private trip to the moon would involve launching the Soyuz into low Earth orbit where it would dock with a booster rocket. The booster rocket would blast the Soyuz, the two private space travelers, and a professional; Russian cosmonaut in a trip around the moon, similar to the one taken by Apollo 13 when an explosion forced its crew to abort the planned lunar landing and to make a free return to Earth.
Among the modifications that are being made to the Soyuz is the addition of an augmented heat shield. Since the Soyuz will enter the Earth’s atmosphere are far greater speeds than a spacecraft returning from low Earth orbit, much higher heat would be generated as a result. Russian engineers are considering reviving a maneuver called “skip reentry” in which the Soyuz would dip into the Earth’s atmosphere to slow it down before descending to Earth via parachute,
Also engineers are planning the addition of a habitation module where the two private space travelers and the Russian cosmonaut would reside in relative comfort during the lunar voyage. No date has been set for the voyage, but 2017 or 2018 are thought to be doable. If there is enough demand, Space Adventures plans a series of private lunar voyages.