Several news sources have reported that English Soprano Sarah Brightman and Space Adventures have scheduled a news conference on Wednesday, October 10 in Moscow, where it is expected she will be introduced as the next space tourist to visit the International Space Station.
Brightman’s announcement would mark a resumption in tourism flights to ISS which were suspended when the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet resulted in a fully booked manifest for the three person Russian Soyuz. Now however, a number of developments suggest that tourists flights may soon be resuming, with interesting implications for NASA and its commercial crew partners.
In the first place, Russia has indicated on several occasions that it can readily increase the flight rate of Soyuz spacecraft production from four to five, in order to accommodate increased demand for both 3rd party governmental passengers as well as for private tourists. Second, beginning in 2015, Russia will likely commence a series of year-long tours at ISS for some cosmonauts, resulting in the availability of an open seat on some flights. This apparently provided the opening which would enable Brightman’s trip. Looking just a little further down the road however, the resumption of domestic American crewed spaceflight through the Commercial Crew program, possibly as early as 2016 will further substantially reduce the passenger load on the Soyuz.
Consequently, even though it is a very limited market due to the extraordinarily high price, Russia may be facing a strong incentive to market Soyuz seats as they become available. For SpaceX this is likely not a problem, as the lower cost and potential re-usability of the Dragon capsule are likely to ensure that the company earns a substantial share of whatever market actually exists if and when the company decides to offer similar accommodations on the Dragon.
For Boeing however, which also has a marketing agreement with Space Adventures, as well as with private station developer Bigelow, this could be a problem, because once again the issue of launch costs comes clearly into play. SpaceX has publicly stated that it could launch astronauts to ISS for $140 million per flight (in current dollars). Boeing and Sierra Nevada, both of which are initially designed around the far more expensive Atlas V launch vehicle will most likely not be able to come anywhere close to that number, even if Congress ignores current calls to withdraw the one billion dollar per year subsidy it provides to United Launch Alliance regardless of the actual launch rate. With not one, but two lower cost alternatives on the market, it is difficult to believe that even the tiny percent of people who have the means to purchase a seat on an orbital flight would willingly pay millions more than the going rate. Having stated that the business case for the CST-100 depends on 2 NASA flights per year, as well as additional sources, Boeing may find the risk is not worth the reward. If so, it may be that almost 20 years after the EELV document scandal which ultimately resulted in a forced partnership with Lockheed Martin, the company which popularized commercial jet aviation with the 707, and even has its own booster, the Delta IV, will still find itself on the ground.
On a brighter note, with global appeal and prior performances against dramatic backdrops, including two Olympic Games and UNESCO world heritage sites such as Chichen-Itza and Buddhist temple of Nara, Japan, it might be possible that the trip could also feature what would truly be a one of a kind performance. If so, lets hope it works out better than for Brightman than it did for the Diva in the Fifth Element.