American billionaire Charles Simonyi may be the last tourist to ride a Soyuz rocket into space for the next few years.
High-end space tourism – the kind where you spend $35 million for two weeks at the International Space Station (ISS) – is now on hiatus.
Why? There's no more room in the ISS inn.
When the space station's crew size doubles later this year, no seats will be available for deep-pocketed adventurers, who currently hitch a ride on the Russian spacecraft that also carry working astronauts to the station.
Mr. Simonyi, who landed early Wednesday on the steppes of Kazakhstan, earned his fortune as a lead software developer at Microsoft Corp. He is the first to make the trip twice and one of only six nonastronauts to enter space. His first trip in 2007 cost $25 million.
"I am flying so close to my first flight because I can still use the experience of my previous flight," Simonyi said at a news conference in March, adding that this trip would be his last. During the tough times of the global financial crisis, Simonyi says he supports space exploration by pouring his own money into the space industry.
Simonyi blasted off March 26 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two crew members, Russian cosmonaut Gennadiy Padalka and American astronaut Michael Barratt. He took the only route available to space tourists: making a reservation for the Soyuz through US-based Space Adventures Ltd.
But the Soyuz is a one-time-use ship that can hold only three people. When the ISS crew goes up to six members from three, delivering the entire crew to the ISS will take two trips at capacity. There simply will be no seats for tourists, even those with $35 million to burn.
The seats that have been used by tourists will be taken by American astronauts. Last December, NASA signed a $141 million contract with the Russian Space Agency to send three ISS crew members on two Soyuz vehicles in 2011. And the number of seats booked by NASA probably will grow because the main transport used by US astronauts, the space shuttle, will be retired next year.
The new US shuttle, Orion, and its carrier rocket, Ares, are still under construction. Orion's first flight is expected in 2015.
But space tourism companies are looking for ways to continue in business. Theoretically, they could purchase an entire Soyuz vehicle and send their clients to space even without docking at the ISS. This is what Space Adventurers intends to do. But such plans require building an extra Soyuz spacecraft, as all currently operating ships are contracted out for ISS expeditions.
"There is a potential to build [an extra] ship," Aleksey Krasnov, the head of manned flights for the Russian Space Agency, said at a news conference. "But there are problems with this. This year we have a record number of flights – four – which means we need to launch four spacecrafts.
"It is necessary to consider industrial and production capacities as well as human resources when building the fifth ship," Mr. Krasnov said. But he added that he hopes that Energiya, the company that constructs the Soyuz, will build a fifth ship.
Vitaliy Lopota, president and chief designer of Energiya, claims that it takes 2-1/2 to three years to build a spacecraft, which means tourist flights couldn't resume until 2012-2013 at the earliest.
"But this project will require more financing," Mr. Lapota was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. "The current conditions of financial markets are not allowing building an extra manned spacecraft."
Private companies have started actively searching for cheaper options. A number of them are developing alternatives to Soyuz ships and carriers to get tourists to space. Competition is growing quickly.
The British firm Virgin Galactic is planning to send 500 people to space each year on its newly built SpaceShipTwo, carried by the rocket White Knight Two. It plans to send up its first tourist as soon as next year or in 2011, when all test flights are finished. A 2-1/2-hour space voyage will cost $200,000. Other companies such as Space Adventures and RocketShip Tours Inc. of Phoenix, are offering suborbital flights where tourists would fly about 37 to 68 miles high, experience weightlessness for five to 10 minutes, and return to Earth.
Competition in the private sector may push the price for space flights down. But no matter how cheap the flights are, designing and constructing a ship that meets all safety requirements takes a long time.
Nevertheless, private companies are hoping to send their own vehicles before an all-private Soyuz could be launched. But in such a risky business, it's not just individual companies that may be affected. The crashes of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles significantly slowed the US space program. If such incidents were to happen with private companies, the era of space tourism on private spacecrafts could end quickly.