If NASA’s return to the moon still seems frustratingly remote—the first astronaut won’t land for more than a decade—take heart: A possible faster alternative is brewing quietly, behind the scenes. For an estimated $100 million, a few wealthy space aficionados may soon be able to reserve a trip to the lunar far side—and get there ahead of the next generation of American astronauts. Their vehicle won’t be the sleek lunar ferry long promised by futurists. Instead, a Soyuz capsule from the Russian space program, nearly written off as bankrupt a few years ago, could be recycled for flights to the moon.
The notion of sending a Soyuz on a circumlunar voyage is not new. Private spaceflight advocates in the United States have been eyeing affordable Russian hardware for years. In 2004, Constellation Services International, a small “new space” firm in Laguna Woods, California, proposed sending a Soyuz and three astronauts—one of them a paying customer—on a lunar swing-by after it undocked from the International Space Station following a routine crew change. To simplify things and reduce costs, the Soyuz wouldn’t orbit the moon, but would come close enough to the surface to give tourists a view seen only by the Apollo astronauts. The company said it would be possible to mount such an expedition, which it called Lunar Express, within two to three years. But that was three years ago.
A year later, Space Adventures, a Virginia-based firm that has already brokered several $20-million-plus tourist flights to the space station, offered its own proposal for lunar voyages. Initially, these plans went no further than a press release and a crude animation. Since then, though, political and technical developments have lent more credibility to the idea. NASA has been gearing up for a return to the moon, with a first landing expected no sooner than 2020 (see Administrator Michael Griffin has made it clear that the United States will build its new Orion lunar craft by itself, with no foreign participation.
The U.S. lunar ambitions have had a profound effect on Russian and European space plans. Four decades after Russia lost the moon race to NASA, that country’s space industry continues to produce some of the most reliable spaceflight hardware in the world. Yet it depends heavily on Western funding. And despite Russian cooperation on the station, Russian-American relations in space have deteriorated. Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia’s Roskosmos space agency, has gone so far as to grumble to the press about NASA’s go-it-alone moon plans. Russia has therefore turned to Europe as a potential partner and source of funding.
A moonship for Europe
At the same time, NASA’s plan to retire the space shuttle in 2010 (to pay for Orion) has left Europe without a ride to orbit. And with China also pursuing manned spaceflight , Europe faced the prospect of being shut out of a developing moon race. Not surprisingly, the European Space Agency started thinking of a lunar taxi too, particularly if it could get one fast and cheap. Roskosmos proposed modifying the Soyuz for moon-orbiting missions in addition to trips to the station.
That won’t be much of a technical stretch. Only relatively minor upgrades would be required to build a long-distance Soyuz; the craft, after all, was designed in the 1960s as part of the Soviet moon program. The most important change would be modifications to the vehicle’s heat shield. A capsule returning from the moon would enter Earth’s atmosphere at a much greater speed than would a vehicle dropping from Earth orbit, so the shield would need to be strengthened. New equipment for long-distance communications would have to be installed, along with upgraded flight control computers. The good news is that Roskosmos had already planned some of the Soyuz upgrades. For the lunar vehicle, Europe will likely build a habitation/logistics module, which would attach to the Soyuz’s front end, providing more living room for the lunar voyagers and their supplies. This won’t be a big stretch either—European companies can simply use the designs they’ve developed for the Columbus space station laboratory and a station resupply craft called the Automated Transfer Vehicle, both of which are set to debut this winter.
The joint Russian-European vehicle is known as the Advanced Crew Transportation System, or ACTS. Design studies began last year. Already, says Manuel Valls, head of planning for the human spaceflight directorate at the European Space Agency, the ACTS concept has progressed far beyond simple upgrades to the existing Russian vehicle: “Our plans are far more ambitious, and therefore it will not be just modernization of the Soyuz.” Whether those plans come to fruition, though, depends largely on politics, including the critical question of how work would be shared among the partners. Ultimately, the European Space Agency will have to decide whether it wants to fund the ACTS; a decision is expected this year.
What does all this have to do with lunar tourism? Given Russia’s current practice of flying tourists on every available mission to the space station, it is likely Roskosmos will be tempted to fly some billionaire (there are nearly 1,000 worldwide) on a trip to the moon, as soon as a seat becomes available. That is, if the Europeans approve. “The ACTS is not a tourist vehicle—it is designed for professional astronauts,” insists Valls, who leads the European team studying the project. Then he adds: “However, once the vehicle is there, various options can be evaluated.”
That appears to leave the door open for tourist flights. Chris Faranetta, vice president of Space Adventures, is confident that “private explorers,” as he calls space tourists, would be on circumlunar missions. Eric Anderson, the company’s CEO, said in June that he’s already negotiating with several people who might be interested in such a trip, and hopes to sell a moon ticket by year’s end. His plan for a flight in 2009 is unrealistic, however. Nikolai Sevastyanov, the head of RKK Energia, the company that builds the Soyuz, was quoted in the Russian press in April saying that lunar missions could fly as soon as 2012 if funding for an upgraded Soyuz comes through. If so, the first lunar tourists would fly on Russian vehicles, just as the first orbital tourists did.