MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will start selling multimillion-dollar tourist tickets to the International Space Station again in 2013 after a four-year hiatus, the U.S.-based firm that organizes the paid trips said on Thursday.
Virginia-based Space Adventures has had no seats to sell for the zero-gravity voyage since flying billionaire Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte to space in October 2009.
But from 2013, it will offer three 10-day trips per year to the orbital station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft under a deal with the Russian space agency Roskosmos and Soyuz manufacturer Energia, company spokesman Sergey Kostenko told Reuters.
Russia has again found room for paying private customers aboard the cramped three-seat Soyuz due to plans to increase annual production of the single-use craft — carried into orbit by Russian rockets — from four to five in 2013.
While Laliberte never revealed how much he paid, Kostenko said the trip to orbit could be expected to cost future clients “significantly more” than the $35 million shelled out by his predecessor, U.S. software mogul Charles Simonyi, in 2007.
He added that Space Adventures already had a list of interested potential travelers, despite the hefty price tag.
Since Laliberte’s return, Roskosmos had reserved Soyuz seats for astronauts only, as it took on full responsibility for ferrying U.S. astronauts amid NASA’s plans to retire its 30-year-old space shuttle program later this year.
NASA said this week it plans to book an extra 12 seats aboard Soyuz to fly its astronauts to and from the International Space Station in 2014-2016 — with each seat set to cost at least $55.8 million.
The U.S. space agency last year signed a $335 million deal with Russia to purchase six seats in 2013, as it prepares to mothball its shuttle program due to high operating costs and to refocus on human space flights far beyond the station’s 220-mile high orbit to asteroids and Mars.
The U.S. government is also trying to speed development of a commercial space flight industry, and plans to rely on two U.S. firms — Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp. — for cargo deliveries to the space station. Both companies plan demonstration flights this year.
Editing by Paul Casciato