Company promises flights to the moon aboard recycled Soviet space station

The moon may soon be a tourist destination for millionaires with Excalibur Almaz, a British spaceflight firm, preparing to sell $150,000 tickets aboard a 1970s Soviet space station retrofitted with new thrusters

By , Space.com

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    Excalibur Almaz Reusable Return Vehicle.
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Space tourists may soon be able to pay their own way to the moon on board old Russian spacecraft retrofitted by a company based in the British Isles.

The spaceflight firm Excalibur Almaz estimates that it can sell about 30 seats between 2015 and 2025, for $150 million each, aboard moon-bound missions on a Salyut-class space station driven by electric hall-effect thrusters.

Excalibur Almaz founder and chief executive officer Art Dula estimates it will take 24 to 30 months to develop the remaining technology needed and to refurbish the ex-Soviet spacecraft and space stations the company already owns. It bought four 1970s-era Soviet Almaz program three-crew capsules and two Russian Salyut-class 63,800-pound (29,000 kilograms) space station pressure vessels.

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Declaring that he is ready to sell tickets and that a 50 percent return on investment could be achieved in three years, Dula told the Royal Aeronautical Society's third European space tourism conference on  June 19, "At $100 million to 150 million [per seat, we can sell] up to 29 seats in the next 10 years, and that is a conservative estimate. We [chose] not to use, for this presentation, the aggressive estimates."  [Gallery: Private Space Stations of the Future]

Those conservative and aggressive estimates are from a market study entitled "Market analysis of commercial human orbital and circumlunar spaceflight" carried out for Excalibur Almaz by the management consultancy Futron. In 2009, Excalibur Almaz officials told SPACE.com the company's first flight would be in 2013.

Recycling spacecraft

The architecture for the lunar mission involves a Soviet Almaz Reusable Return Vehicle (RRV), which can carry three people, launched by a Soyuz-FG rocket. This rocket also launches Russia's Soyuz manned capsule. The RRV weighs 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg) and has a habitable volume of 159 cubic feet (4.5 cubic meters). The lunar flight also uses a Salyut-class 63,800-pound (29,000 kg) space station that is launched by a Proton rocket. While Excalibur Almaz intends to use the Soyuz-FG and Proton initially, Dula did not rule out using other rockets, including Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) Falcon 9 in the future. Dula said Excalibur Almaz would wait for the Falcon 9 to accumulate enough flights that it became feasible to insure the space station module aboard the rocket.

 "Our customers are private expedition members and I think it is fundamentally different to tourism," Dula said. "What we are offering [with the lunar flight] is more like expeditions." 

Once in orbit, the station and RRV will dock and the station's propulsion system, which is a group of electric hall-effect thrusters, propels the stack out to the moon. Excalibur Almaz is in talks with Natick, Mass.-based Busek Space Propulsion to develop the hall-effect thrusters needed. Dula described an electric system for the station module that would use up to 100,000 watts of power for its thrusters. If a solar or cosmic radiation event threatened a flight's crew and passengers, the company could run power through "electrical lines around the station and keep most of the charged articles away — protons you can keep out with an electrical field." He also said the station would have a refuge area crew and passengers could use to protect against radiation storms.

In addition to electric thrusters to propel a space station to the moon, Excalibur Almaz must pay for the development of digital flight-control computers, life support systems and an in-space propulsion system. Dula indicated that his company has spent about $150 million on the in-orbit space propulsion module.

"The cost is say $250 million; we already have much of the nonrecurring expense [engineering research and development] paid for this," he said. This propulsion system is based on the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle's propulsion module. EADS Astrium is a contractor for Excalibur Almaz. Another contractor is Russian military and industrial joint stock company Mashinostroyenia.

Building on the past

Dula emphasized the investment by the Soviet Union that Excalibur Almaz was able to leverage. "We already have a proven [RRV] emergency escape system that's operated nine times and one time in an actual failure, a real test and it worked," he said. "We have reissued all the drawings for this emergency escape system to modern standards, they are ready to be built and we have a cost estimate for the first ten units."

According to Excalibur Almaz, the Almaz program saw nine unmanned RRV test flights and use of the spacecraft for ferrying equipment and cargo to the Almaz space stations. The RRVs were in orbit for up to 175 days, and while docked with the station they were occupied to validate the life support system. While the RRVs spent time in only low-Earth orbit, the heat shield is designed to cope with the greater heat experienced from a moon-return trajectory.

Dula said that the RRV capsules can be reused up to 15 times each, according to their Russian manufacturer. "We performed technical feasibility studies of the RRV and their subsystems as well as launch vehicle compatibility and the overall program architecture," he told the Society's conference audience. [The 5 Most Promising Private Spaceships]

Dula also said that his space transportation system could be used by individuals, governments and private companies that wanted to conduct research or bring metals back from near earth objects, such as the billionaire backed Planetary Resources firm plans to do. He added that where governments wanted to operate on the moon, Excalibur Almaz could deliver a telecommunications satellite that would serve the moon from a Lagrange point 2 orbit and gave a price of $75 million. The L2 location is 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth, away from the sun.

The company also plans to offer other lunar Lagrange point services, such as deep space technology testing for $150 million per mission, and payload delivery to the lunar surface for $350 million. For lunar payload delivery, Excalibur Almaz is researching momentum transfer using tethers. Momentum from the 63,800-pound space station orbiting the Earth would be transferred to the payload using a tether and that payload would then be propelled to the moon.

Wider plans

In terms of Excalibur Almaz's wider business plans, Dula said, "we've got unmanned research missions, human transportation and tourism. We have commissioned market studies. We have never announced these before. We have a complete business plan for cargo deliveries for the International Space Station, we just haven't released it." He added that if NASA reopened bids for supplying International Space Station cargo, he would respond.

For low-Earth orbit missions, Dula said the RRVs and space stations could each be worth about $35 million per year in advertising revenue alone, according to studies paid for by Excalibur Almaz. He also confidently said of his Futron report, "There is a market for commercial dedicated unmanned scientific research missions. One of our capsules may well be dedicated to such missions." He priced this service at $225 million and added that a manned scientific research mission would cost $495 million.

Dula is not the first to offer commercial unmanned spacecraft science missions. SpaceX is planning its DragonLab service, the first of which the company's website launch manifest states will occur in 2014. SpaceX's DragonLab fact sheet does not list any prices. For these missions, Excalibur Almaz would use a new module, which is being developed with the help of EADS Astrium. On its website, Excalibur Almaz describes a service module, which is used for storing consumables and acts as a habitation area, and a cargo module that can deliver up to 22,000 pounds (10,000 kg) of cargo.

Crew transport

For crew transport to low-Earth orbit, Dula said that NASA was distorting the market by paying $63 million per seat, but that his company is still part of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program with a nonfunded space act agreement. Dula said that Excalibur Almaz had achieved all of its CCDev milestones on time and on budget so far.

Because of the international nature of its work, with Excalibur Almaz based on the British-dependent territory of the Isle of Man, located between Britain and Ireland, using Soviet technology, and European and potentially U.S. expertise, the company has sought the necessary approvals. "We have the state department license required to work with American, European, Russian contractors to refurbish these systems. And we have the export licenses from the Russian Federation," said Dula.

The Isle of Man-headquartered company is subject to the U.K.'s Outer Space Treaty law. The U.K. Space Agency does not have any manned spaceflight rules but has talked about developing them because of suborbital spaceline Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic, owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin group, is a U.K. company. Despite its U.S. arm, Virgin Galactic LLC, which conducts the suborbital flights, Branson's firm is still expected to obtain U.K. launch licenses. Of one thing Dula is certain, "If you don't have an escape system, you will never get a license from the British space agency."

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