Investor Signed Up For Tourist Spaceship

The Federal Space Agency has signed an agreement with an investor to secure financing for an additional ship to help the country cash in on the growing space-tourism boom.

The agency said in a statement Monday that the new Soyuz-TMA craft should be ready by 2011 and would allow them to accommodate two tourists at a time while fulfilling their obligations to the international space station.

"An agreement has been achieved with one investor to begin financing of such a Soyuz with the tentative time of its launch set for 2011," the statement said. "The content of the existing agreements with the investor allows us to hope that this initiative, which comes as a result of the demand on the international market for commercial manned space flights, will extend beyond 2011."

The agency did not identify the investor or disclose financial details.

The craft currently can seat one tourist on trips to the international space station alongside two professional cosmonauts or astronauts. The 10-day journey costs an average of $20 million.

But the decision to build an additional ship could also mean a rise in prices. A Soyuz-TMA would cost around $10 million, and another launch vehicle would require more than $40 million.

In June, the Federal Space Agency and Space Adventures, a U.S.-based company that markets trips to the space station on Soyuz-TMAs, announced plans to launch one of the three-seat ships with two tourists in 2011.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said last month that he planned to make the trip in 2011 and had made a $5 million down payment.

The space station flights also face competition from suborbital trips, in which tourists experience weightlessness for several minutes on aircraft launched from carrier vehicles.

British billionaire Richard Branson's space travel venture, Virgin Galactic, said last month that it had signed up more than 250 customers, including 11 from Russia, for a $200,000 flight of four to five minutes 110 kilometers above the Earth. It is hoping to start commercial services by the end of 2010.

Russia will launch two more space tourists, one this year and one in 2009, before putting tourism on hold for two years to accommodate a planned increase in the strength of the station's permanent crew, from three to six, the statement said.

The increase will take place in 2009 and require that two Soyuz-TMAs, instead of one, be docked to the station so that the entire crew can be evacuated in case of an emergency.

Russia will be able to build enough Soyuz-TMAs in 2011 to have two docked and one launched for tourism. "There will be no negative impact on the fulfillment of Russia's international obligations," the statement said.

In 2003, when the Federal Space Agency first began considering two astronauts per launch to the space station, an official estimated that the country could earn some $80 million per year from the trips.

Before the space agency can sell more seats to tourists, however, it needs to nail down and fix the glitch that has caused three Soyuz-TMAs to take a steeper-than-usual re-entry, called a "ballistic trajectory" when returning to Earth, subjecting its crews to forces of up to eight times that of the Earth's gravity.