CosmoCourse, a private Russian space exploration enterprise, has become the first company to get approval from federal space corporation Roscosmos for its space tourism project.

The company, one of a slew of up-and-coming space startups that have resident status in the space cluster of the Skolkovo Foundation, has had its design specification approved and plans to send its first tourists into space in 2020, CosmoCourse head Pavel Pushkin announced at the InSpace forum in Moscow last week.

Tourists will be sent up to an altitude of 200 kilometers in groups of six in a reusable capsule, in which for five or six minutes they will be able to float in zero gravity, Pushkin told The reusable spaceship will return to Earth, landing with the help of a parachute system, and the flight will take no more than 20 minutes in total, he said.

Cosmocourse plans to send its first group of tourists into space in 2020. Photo: Juan Carlos Casado.

Pushkin told journalists at the InSpace forum that Roscosmos head Igor Komarov had “welcomed the project with enthusiasm and given the order to cooperate on it.” Both the capsule and rocket will be reusable, which the company expects will enable it to keep costs relatively low. 

CosmoCourse was only founded in summer 2014, but already has ambitious plans: it wants to account for half of the global space tourism market from 2020. The company believes suborbital tourism, when passengers are flown into space at a trajectory that means they do not complete an orbital revolution, will become a more accessible alternative to orbital tourism. The only existing platform for orbital tourism is the International Space Station, which a few wealthy space tourists have flown to on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft after paying tens of millions of dollars and undergoing extensive training on Earth. Suborbital flights will be thousands of times shorter and hundreds of times cheaper, while training is also incomparably simpler, says Pushkin.

“The tourist will have to undergo a medical examination and sign a contract,” explains Pushkin. “Then a team will be chosen to accompany them. Then the tourist flies to the cosmodrome to start their training. They will see the size of the capsule, assess its dimensions, try out their seat. And if all goes to plan, the tourist will be at the cosmodrome for three days. On the third day of their training, they’ll go up into space.”

Pushkin says the cost of a trip to space with his company will be very reasonable compared to foreign space travel agencies.

“When we first announced the project [in autumn 2014], we estimated the price at approximately $200,000 to $250,000,” he said.

“But back then, there were 30-something rubles to the dollar. [The ruble has since plummeted, and currently stands at 70 to the dollar.] In actual fact, it could work out either cheaper or more expensive. If the companies working in this industry had their way, the project could get stratospherically expensive. But if you look at market prices for similar services, then it’s actually very reasonable – both the design and the production of the technical equipment. When we named the price, we took into account those of our competitors, in particular [British billionaire] Richard Branson,” Pushkin says.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic company last month unveiled its new suborbital tourist space shuttle, SpaceShipTwo – also designed to carry six tourists – but declined to set a date for the first passenger flights. Tickets on a Virgin Galactic flight are priced at $250,000.

Domestic launchpad

Russia’s space tourists will likely depart from the Kapustin Yar rocket launch and development site in the country’s southern Astrakhan region.

“For manned spaceflights along our trajectory, ideally the launches would be from a flat, desert area,” said Pushkin. “That could be Baikonur [Russia’s cosmodrome in Kazakhstan], [the rocket launch site near] Yasny in the Orenburg region, or Kapustin Yar. The latter would be good in that firstly, it’s Russian territory, and secondly, it has all the infrastructure, including accommodation. There’s an enterprise not far away – in Volgograd – that could supply the oxygen, nitrogen and helium necessary for the launch.”

Pushkin has already started negotiations with the management of Kapustin Yar, and said he was optimistic on their outcome.

“They are open to possible cooperation – and really, why shouldn’t they be? We’re giving their specialists the opportunity to make money. Of course, when you start telling someone about your plans, at first people laugh and ask: ‘Come on, who’s going to let you do that?’ But when you explain who you’re working with and what you do, and start discussing the specifics of the project, their tone changes quickly and people start to take you seriously.”

Legal hurdles

The design specification has been approved by TsNIImash, Russia’s key space industry machine-building research institute, as well as with Roscosmos.

“The institute’s management said that no one had approached them with that kind of request and promised to support us,” said Pushkin. “Public-private partnerships are included in the fundamental documentation of the space industry, and it seemed to me that TsNIImash is supposed to solve problems. There are many problems, and a lot of them are related to legislation.”

The legal hurdles include the lack of any law regulating the launch of private spacecraft, and the fact that there is no legal provision for any entity other than the state itself to order the creation of a space tourism system, he said.

Pushkin said he was counting on the help of the Skolkovo Foundation to lay down a legal foundation for space flights by private companies.

“Many startups don’t realise how important the support in government relations provided by Skolkovo to its residents is,” he said. “For example, we have really been helped in our dealings with Roscosmos by Alexei Belyakov, head of Skolkovo’s space cluster.”

Untapped market

Belyakov said a market for private projects undoubtedly exists.

“In addition to the potential market for suborbital tourism – the size of which is attested to by the hundreds of places on flights reserved years in advance – there are other opportunities to make money via private launches,” he said, citing the need for a small-lift launch vehicle for launching small satellites into orbit.

“Currently, people have to wait for years to launch such satellites, since they are only launched together with bigger satellites. A company that could launch them as and when required and at a low price could bag a significant share of the mini-satellite launch market – a segment that is forecast to grow exponentially in the coming years.”

Famous space tourists include Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, and South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth.