Bigelow announces plans for private astronaut flights to space station

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (foreground) and Doug Hurley (background) train in a Crew Dragon simulator for their flight to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX/NASA

Bigelow Space Operations says it will charge $52 million per seat to send private astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Crew Dragon ferry ships, and has already paid “substantial sums” to SpaceX for up to four dedicated crew missions to the orbiting research complex.

The announcement came in a statement June 7 by Robert Bigelow, the wealthy founder of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace and Bigelow Space Operations, hours after NASA unveiled plans to use the International Space Station to commercialize low Earth orbit for human spaceflight.

Bigelow said his company made the initial payments to SpaceX in September 2018.

These (four) launches are dedicated flights each carrying up to four people for a duration of one to possibly two months on the ISS,” Bigelow wrote.

One of the tenets of NASA’s plan is to open up the space station for private astronauts, along with an initiative to make a docking port on the station available for a commercial module. Under the new space agency policy, the space station could host up to two visits by commercial astronauts per year, each with multiple passengers on-board.

Depending on how many seats are filled on the commercial crew vehicles, the space station could accommodate a “dozen or so private astronauts, potentially, per year,” said Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the space station program at NASA Headquarters, during last week’s announcement in New York.

The Crew Dragon and Starliner commercial crew capsules in development by SpaceX and Boeing can each carry up to seven astronauts per flight. For missions dedicated to NASA, four astronauts will ride on the spaceships to and from the station, along with cargo.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos

In his written statement, Bigelow did not say when the dedicated flights for private astronauts might blast off, or if Bigelow has secured commitments from customers to fly to the station.

“BSO is excited about NASA’s announcements last Friday,” Bigelow wrote. “BSO has demonstrated its sincerity and commitment to moving forward on NASA’s commercialization plans for the ISS through the execution of last September’s launch contracts.

“BSO intends to thoroughly digest all of the information that was dispersed last week so that all opportunities and obligations to properly conduct the flights and activities of new astronauts to the ISS can be responsibly performed,” Bigelow wrote.

Bigelow established Bigelow Space Operations in 2018 to oversee commercial space stations developed by sister company Bigelow Aerospace, which he founded in 1999 to design and fabricate expandable modules to form pressurized habitats in space.

The initial cost of a commercial astronaut trip to the International Space Station will be approximately $52 million per person, according to Bigelow.

“The next big question is when is this all going to happen? Once the SpaceX rocket and capsule are certified by NASA to fly people to the ISS, then this program can begin,” Bigelow wrote.

“As you might imagine, as they say ‘the devil is in the details,’ and there are many,” Bigelow wrote. “But we are excited and optimistic that all of this can come together successfully, and BSO has skin in the game.”

NASA said June 7 that, in addition to transportation costs, the space agency will charge around $35,000 a day per astronaut to use the space station’s life support, communications, power and other systems. It was not clear whether Bigelow’s price of $52 million included the accommodation costs on the station, or only the transportation services.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft backs away from the International Space Station after undocking March 8 at the end of a six-day unpiloted demonstration mission. Credit: SpaceX

Despite recent delays, NASA still expects at least one of the commercial crew capsules to fly astronauts to the space station by the end of the year, then begin regular crew rotation missions in 2020.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule completed its first unpiloted test flight to the station in March, but the spacecraft was destroyed in a test accident on the ground in April as engineers prepared it for an abort test that was scheduled for this summer.

Teams will ready the second space-rated Crew Dragon vehicle, which was previously assigned to carry astronauts to the station, for the high-altitude abort test. The third Crew Dragon off SpaceX’s assembly line in Hawthorne, California, will now be used for the next test flight to the space station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on-board.

The target launch dates for the abort test and astronaut flight, which will lift off from Florida aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, are under review.

Meanwhile, Boeing is readying its first Starliner test flight for liftoff from Cape Canaveral as soon as mid-August aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The unpiloted mission will dock with the space station and return to Earth for a parachute-assisted landing in the Western United States.

If that mission goes well, Boeing could launch a second Starliner test flight with astronauts as soon as November.

Both crew capsules are being developed and flown with NASA funding. The space agency has multibillion-dollar contracts with SpaceX and Boeing covering the design, development and demonstration of each spacecraft, plus six crew rotation missions by each contractor through the early 2020s.

The debut of the Crew Dragon and Starliner will end NASA’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ferry ships for astronaut transportation to the space station.

Under recent contracts with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, NASA is paying more than $80 million per seat for a round-trip flight on a Soyuz spacecraft. NASA says its average cost for a flight on the Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles is around $58 million.

Bigelow’s published price quote suggests a private astronaut trip will cost a bit less than a NASA astronaut flight.

Boeing has an agreement with Space Adventures to fly private astronauts on Starliner missions to the space station. Space Adventures arranged the first space tourist flight in 2001 with U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, who spent nearly eight days in space on a trip to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

“We’re pleased to see NASA’s announcement today, and applaud NASA’s efforts in consulting industry to inform NASA’s strategy and policy. Space Adventures is delighted to have been a key contributor to NASA in that process,” the company said in a statement June 7.

Space Adventures most recently arranged for a space tourist mission in 2009 with Canadian artist and entrepreneur Guy Laliberté. The company said last week it is currently able to book flights to the station on Soyuz or Starliner missions.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.