A Tuesday report in the Moscow Times suggests that Space Adventures now has two paying passengers for a planned, commercial voyage around the moon. The two, who thus far have been unidentified, have presumably paid $150 million each to side in a Soyuz spacecraft that will loop around the moon in a maneuver called a free return that will take it back to Earth. The same maneuver was used by Apollo 13 when the spacecraft was crippled due to an explosion and had to return to Earth as soon as possible.
The plan is for the two passengers and a Russian cosmonaut to launch on board the Soyuz, then dock with an unpiloted booster rocket in low Earth orbit. The booster rocket would fire its engines and fling the Soyuz, the two passengers, and their Russian pilot out of low Earth orbit. As they pass around the far side of the moon, they will come to about 100 kilometers of the lunar surface. The flight is expected to take place in 2017 or 2018. The identities of the two passengers will be revealed as the launch date draws closer.
If the commercial voyage to the moon comes off, it will be the first time that any human has flown beyond low Earth orbit to the vicinity of the moon since the flight of Apollo 17 in December, 1972. NASA is planning a lunar orbital voyage in the early 2020s to intercept an asteroid that will have been previously been snagged and taken there by a robotic spacecraft. Both China and Russia have lunar ambitions, though there is no definitive date for such voyages. Officially NASA has foresworn a return to the lunar surface by presidential directive.
Space Adventures has been arranging for private space trips to the International Space Station since businessman and former NASA scientist Dennis Tito’s fight in 2001. The most recent flight took place in September and October 2009 when Guy Laliberte, the CEO of Cirque du Soleil visited the ISS. After a hiatus, Space Adventures is preparing a new commercial voyage to the space station with British singer Sarah Brightman to take place in 2015.