Extraterrestrial Outfitter

If you’re planning an off-world vacation, there’s only one name to call: Eric Anderson

Don’t call us travel agents, says Eric Anderson, the 37-year-old founder of Space Adventures. Their business is more like mounting Everest expeditions than booking trips to Europe. (Eric Long)
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“There’s no standard pitch,” he says. Sometimes the direct approach plays best: “Have you ever considered going into space?” The reactions, he says, range from “ ‘I would absolutely love to, but my wife would kill me’ to, you know, just bursting into laughter.”

Chris Faranetta has left Space Adventures (he now works for a fusion energy technology company called HyperV, in Virginia), but the company holds steady at about 20 employees. Sergey Kostenko still heads the Moscow office (while running a side business called Orbital Technologies, to market stays on a yet-to-be-built orbital hotel), and Marsel Gubaydullin, the former Star City photographer, is still director of operations in Moscow.

The lunar voyage is by far the most exciting thing on their horizon. The mission plan—which has progressed from Faranetta’s early concepts to a detailed, Russian-produced study similar to the one created for space station visits—now calls for a liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two passengers paying at least $150 million each, along with a professional cosmonaut as spaceship commander. The crew will ride in a modified version of the Russian workhorse, the Soyuz-TMA.

Another rocket, a Proton, would launch an additional habitat module designed specially for the mission, which will double the living space and carry more supplies, plus a Block-DM upper stage, normally used for boosting communications satellites to higher orbits. These pieces will link together in Earth orbit, and the Block-DM will fire to send the combined Soyuz–habitat module into deep space.

Three and a half days of travel will bring the crew around the far side of the moon, the face that Earthlings never see. The crew will skim the mountaintops without going into orbit, swing back around to the front side, and then head home to Earth—a figure-eight trajectory similar to the one traveled by the crew of Apollo 13. After another three and a half days, the crew’s Soyuz reentry module will hit Earth’s atmosphere and parachute down to the Kazakh steppe.

Sounds fantastic. And feasible, according to Space Adventures and its Russian advisers. But it will certainly be a stretch. “What I would be most worried about is the entry,” says Ken Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut and Soyuz veteran who now works for SpaceX. “The key thing is making sure they hit the Earth’s atmosphere at just the right angle.” Enter too shallow, and the crew risks bouncing back out into space, never to return. Come in too steep, and the ship would disintegrate from the intense heat of reentry.

Other aspects of the lunar trip should be more straightforward, according to Bowersox. “If you look at the other things that have to be done, and the experience the Russians have with life support systems, with structures, with engines that work in space, they’ve demonstrated a lot of capability…that should transfer directly to being able to go out, around the moon, and back.” And, he can’t resist adding, “I’d love to do that flight. Seven days—man, you can’t buy a vacation like that. Seeing the moon up close. Get to see the Earth rise on the other side. That’s quite an experience.”

Former astronaut Jim Voss, who was onboard the space station during Tito’s 2001 visit, points out that a manned lunar trip, which the Russians have never done, “is harder than going to [Earth orbit]. I believe they are morally obligated to demonstrate the safety of their system before selling seats.” Indeed, Space Adventures and its Russian partners plan to fly at least one full-up test flight to the moon and back. Anderson says this will take place a few months to a year before the actual mission. They have not decided whether the test flight will have a crew.

Leroy Chiao, another former space station astronaut who has ridden on the Soyuz and, more recently, has worked to develop commercial uses of Russian space hardware, says he wishes Space Adventures well. But he raises a political question: Is the traditionally conservative Russian space establishment willing to take on such an ambitious project right now? This is not like sending private tourists to the space station, using well-established vehicles and procedures. “This is much more speculative, because it requires that money be put down for development work on new hardware, or to integrate existing hardware that hasn’t been integrated before.”

None of these concerns is likely to surprise Anderson. And he’s shown persistence in the face of adversity before. When Russian space doctors told Greg Olsen, Space Adventures’ third spaceflight participant, that he couldn’t fly in space due to an irregular heartbeat, Anderson sprang into action, enlisting a former NASA chief flight surgeon to persuade them to change their minds. “Obstacles? There were plenty,” Olsen wrote later. “But there’s always a way around them, if you just look long enough and argue hard enough. Eric Anderson has become a master at this, out of sheer necessity.” Olsen flew to the space station as planned in October 2005.

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