The private spaceflight company founded by billionaire Elon Musk has signed an agreement with the U.S. space tourism company Space Adventures to launch up to four passengers on an orbital trip aboard a Crew Dragon space capsule. The mission would last up to five days and could launch as early as late 2021, Space Adventures representatives told Space.com.
"This historic mission will forge a path to making spaceflight possible for all people who dream of it, and we are pleased to work with the Space Adventures team on the mission," SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement from Space Adventures.
Under the agreement, Space Adventures will use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon vehicle to fly up to four passengers to Earth orbit. The trip will not visit the International Space Station. Instead, it will remain in orbit as a free-flying spacecraft.
"This will provide up to four individuals with the opportunity to break the world altitude record for private citizen spaceflight and see planet Earth the way no one has since the Gemini program," Space Adventures representatives said in the statement. For comparison, the space station orbits the Earth at an average altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers).
"Honoring our combined histories, this Dragon mission will be a special experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity — capable of reaching twice the altitude of any prior civilian astronaut mission or space station visitor," said Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, said in the statement.
To date, Space Adventures has arranged eight orbital trips to the International Space Station for seven wealthy customers: Dennis Tito in 2001; South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in 2002; American entrepreneurs Greg Olsen in 2005 and Anousheh Ansari in 2006; Microsoft co-founder Charles Simonyi (twice) in 2007 and 2009; computer game developer Richard Garriott in 2008; and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte in 2009.
Those spaceflights all cost tens of millions of dollars, with Laliberte's flight costing a reported $35 million for his 11-day trip. The passengers, called "spaceflight participants," flew to and from the station on Russian Soyuz space capsules under agreements between Space Adventures and Roscosmos, Russia's space agency.
SpaceX or Space Adventures did not announce exact pricing for the Crew Dragon tourist flight, but the cost per seat is expected to be in the same range of other commercial spaceflight opportunities.
As for timing, it's likely that the free-flying Crew Dragon flight will launch only after SpaceX begins flying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Those trips are expected to begin later this year.
SpaceX (and rival Boeing) have multi-billion-dollar contracts to fly astronauts on round trips to and from the space station. In 2019, SpaceX performed a successful uncrewed test flight to the station with Crew Dragon, following it up with a launch abort test last month.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft is a reusable space capsule designed to carry up to seven people on trips to and from Earth orbit. SpaceX missions for NASA will launch the capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket, visit the International Space Station for months, then return to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
In December, Boeing launched an uncrewed test flight of its own Starliner capsule, but it failed to reach the space station due to software and communications issues. Boeing and NASA are investigating that flight to determine if another uncrewed flight will be required.
Meanwhile, Space Adventures is also working with Roscosmos to fly two space tourists to the International Space Station on a dedicated Soyuz spacecraft in 2021. Roscosmos announced the agreement with Space Adventures last year.
"Creating unique and previously impossible opportunities for private citizens to experience space is why Space Adventures exists," Anderson said. "Since its maiden mission in 2010, no engineering achievement has consistently impressed the industry more than the Dragon/Falcon 9 reusable system."
Editor's note: This story, originally posted at 10 a.m. EST, has been updated to include mission duration, timing and cost details from Space Adventures.
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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.