The Russian space agency and the Rocket Space Corporation Energia have agreed to build additional Soyuz spacecraft to carry paying customers to the International Space Station starting in 2013 in a deal announced Wednesday by Space Adventures Ltd. of Vienna, Va.
"It's a great indication of the market and the fact that we're able to restart with the Russians," Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, told CBS News. "I think it's notable this is the first time the capacity for an additional launch has specifically been increased based on the market demand.
"We've got a number of people who have expressed interest over the years who are waiting with bated breath for us to come out with the dates for these new opportunities. So a lot of things are going to start happening as of today." p>
Space Adventures has arranged eight commercial flights to the space station for six men and one woman, starting with Dennis Tito in 2001 and most recently with Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, who visited the outpost in 2009. Charles Simonyi, a software developer and entrepreneur, paid for two flights.
But future tourist flights to the lab complex were in doubt because of a U.S. decision to retire NASA's shuttle fleet after just three more missions. NASA has contracts in place to launch U.S., European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts to the space station through 2014 aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft until new commercial rockets and capsules ordered by the Obama administration become available.
The Russians had been building and launching two three-seat Soyuz spacecraft per year to carry cosmonauts and the occasional tourist to the station. With the NASA contracts, production has been increased to four vehicles per year, allowing the station's partners to support a full-time crew of six. But no additional seats were available for space tourists.
With production of an additional spacecraft , Space Adventures expects to resume tourist visits to the space station starting in 2013. The company does not discuss costs, but a seat on a Soyuz is believed to run between $30 million and $40 million.
"There are four missions that fly to the ISS every year and starting in 2013 there will be a fifth mission added to the rotation," Anderson said. "But the number of seats committed to NASA and Russia and the other partners will remain at 12, so there will be 15 seats (available) over five missions."
Asked if he was confident Energia could safely ramp up production, he said "I have absolutely no doubt at this time based on our due diligence that they'll be able to meet that (demand) and probably more as time goes on."
"The world is growing, there are more and more competitors, there will be in the next decade a number of orbital launch vehicles and I think the Russians will be there alongside the rest of us working to provide access to space that is continuous and available for many more missions."
In a Space Adventures news release, Alexei Krasnov, director of human spaceflight for the Russian space agency, said "we are very pleased to continue space tourism with Space Adventures."
"Also, the addition of a fifth Soyuz spacecraft to the current manifest will add flexibility and redundancy to our ISS transportation capabilities," he said. "We welcome the opportunity to increase our efforts to meet the public demand for access to space."