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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Launching the Rich Into Space

wpEric Anderson, 32, founded Space Adventures, which now has about 20 employees in Virginia and a few in Russia.
WASHINGTON -- On the 10th floor of a high-rise populated mostly by law firms and software companies is an office where travel agents book multimillion-dollar jaunts to outer space.

From quiet cubicles, they have launched clients on high-priced excursions into weightlessness and blackness, defying gravity and redefining travel destinations. If it weren't for the spacesuits hanging a little eerily in the lobby, a visitor might not guess what's going on.

Launching tourists into space doesn't seem the least bit absurd to Eric Anderson, 32, founder and CEO of Space Adventures. When billionaire Charles Simonyi blasted off April 7 in a Russian rocket from a launch pad in Kazakhstan, it was Space Adventures that booked the trip. As a guest on the international space station, Simonyi orbited Earth 16 times per day at 28,000 kilometers per hour while conducting experiments, taking photographs of the planet and blogging. He returned to Earth on Saturday.

Anderson, earthbound in Virginia, sees this journey -- like the trips of the four other tourists who preceded Simonyi into space, all arranged by his company -- as a milestone in the development of space tourism. It was a concept that evoked a fair amount of skepticism when Anderson started his company nine years ago with $500,000 from a few investors.

"We've finally proven that a market exists," he said. "We've totally recalibrated the interest level in spaceflight."

Anderson said his company has taken in about $150 million in ticket sales, a large chunk of which is paid to the Federal Space Agency for the use of its facilities and spacecraft.

While Anderson was one of the first entrepreneurs in the field, he is getting some deep-pocket competition: Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites hotel chain, is developing inflatable space stations and expects to launch vessels designed for people by 2010. PayPal founder Elon Musk started the rocket company SpaceX to build vehicles to carry cargo and people to the space station. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has sponsored the development of a manned spacecraft. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space-tourism company is building vehicles for suborbital flights.

Space Adventures is also trying to build a suborbital vehicle but for now focuses on its role as ticket agent for people who want to hitch rides on existing spacecraft. The Federal Space Agency, which needs to supplement its limited government funding, sells the extra seat on its Soyuz spacecraft, which travels to the space station about twice per year. Competing with other countries and space agencies that don't have spacecraft, Anderson has been bidding on and buying some of those seats since the late 1990s, and he has purchased the seat for 2008 and 2009.

Charles Simonyi, front row center, posing on the international space station.
Simonyi and his four predecessors paid $20 million to $25 million each to climb aboard the Soyuz spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But the company gets most of its business -- it claims more than 2,000 customers -- from tamer trips.

The most popular is a $3,495 "zero-gravity flight" in a jet in which riders experience several 20-second bouts of weightlessness; it's available in both the United States and Russia. In Star City, not far from Moscow, customers who pay about $7,800 each can take turns in a centrifuge that simulates re-entry from space -- a feeling similar to the force of a roller coaster, Anderson said. A liftoff simulation inside a real spacecraft goes for $8,500.

Space Adventures plans to offer soon suborbital flights in a vehicle it is building with a Russian aircraft company -- 90-minute trips to the edge of the atmosphere, including up to five minutes of weightlessness and the chance to gaze at the Earth's curvature. Each trip would cost $102,000, Anderson said, and could be launched from either of the two spaceports that Space Adventures is spending $265 million to build in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Anderson said 200 people have made reservations for suborbital trips, putting up $3 million in deposits.

Anderson hopes one of those flights may also be his own inaugural venture into space. As a child growing up in Colorado, his dream was to become an astronaut. But in high school, his eyesight worsened, erasing his hopes. He studied aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia and won an internship with NASA. After school he worked for an aerospace software company but soon realized that "what I was really passionate about was getting people into space."

He was 23 when he founded Space Adventures, which now has about 20 employees in its Virginia office and a few in Russia. It also has a few salespeople in Tokyo, because the company is starting to target Asia as a good source of people who want to be space travelers.

Space Adventures largely targets clients by the size of their wallets. Anderson's crew -- advised by a lineup of 10 former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin of the first lunar landing in 1969 -- first does research to identify wealthy people who might be interested. They may have expressed interest in space travel in media interviews, written about rocket dreams in a personal blog, or given money to space-oriented ventures. People who have had other extreme adventures, such as climbing Mount Everest, are also candidates. Working from that roster, Anderson's crew organizes presentations around the world, and then recruits.

Norman Thagard, a retired NASA astronaut and the first American to fly in a Russian spacecraft, in 1995, has helped passengers prepare for Space Adventures flights aboard Soyuz craft.

"I think there's already a market -- there are hundreds of billionaires in the world," he said. "The fact that it's space makes it more exotic, but soon it will be more routine."