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Intelligent Machines

Moscow Reopens for Space Tourism

The era of space tourism began in 2001, when the American multimillionaire Dennis Tito bought a ticket to the International Space Station aboard a three-person Russian Soyuz craft. Other private space travelers followed, but these trips were halted in 2009: the expansion of the station’s crew from three to six required that all Soyuz seats be reserved for crew members.

However, the larger crew meant Russia had to expand its production capacity so it could launch four, rather than two, Soyuz spacecraft annually. In fact, with current capacity a fifth vehicle could be fabricated per year, if a customer willing to pay for the entire spacecraft shows up. These vehicles are the latest “digital Soyuz” model, which can be flown by a single professional cosmonaut, leaving room for two paying passengers—twice as many as previously. After fruitless negotiations last year with current station partners as well as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, India, and Malaysia, the Russians kicked off 2011 by signing a contract with Space Adventures, the firm that had managed the earlier tourist flights, to begin offering seats on the extra Soyuz in 2013.

Other recent announcements from Moscow have mentioned suborbital tourist hops by a rocket plane mounted atop an airliner (similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo) and an orbital hotel. But these are paper proposals. A more serious contender is the Excalibur Almaz project, which seeks to purchase, recertify, and fly a little-known type of spacecraft that was mothballed during the Soviet era. That effort has already attracted Western investors.

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