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Space Adventures, SpaceX to launch private crew to Gemini heights

February 18, 2020

— A new commercial space mission will fly its passengers higher in Earth orbit than ever before, achieving an altitude last reached by Gemini astronauts more than 50 years ago.

Space Adventures, the only space tourism company to send its clients to the International Space Station, announced on Tuesday (Feb. 18) a new partnership with SpaceX to launch privately-funded customers on the first Crew Dragon free-flyer mission. The spaceflight, targeted for late 2021 to mid-2022, will not dock at the space station, but rather it will circle around Earth at an altitude two to three times greater than the orbiting laboratory.

"Creating unique and previously impossible opportunities for private citizens to experience space is why Space Adventures exists," Eric Anderson, the company's chairman, said in a statement. "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."

SpaceX is currently preparing to launch its first Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts on a demonstration mission to the space station. The company earlier flew an uncrewed demo flight and completed both pad and in-flight abort tests with the new human-rated capsule.

Space Adventures' free-flyer mission will provide up to four crew members with the opportunity to break the world altitude record for a private citizen spaceflight. The current orbital record of 853 miles (1,373 kilometers) was set in September 1966 by Charles "Pete" Conrad and Richard "Dick" Gordon on NASA's Gemini 11 mission. (Apollo astronauts, including Conrad and Gordon, later flew farther from Earth on missions to the moon, but the Gemini 11 record stands for the highest Earth orbit reached by a crewed spacecraft.)

In addition to setting a new record, the Space Adventures mission will also help establish the market for private missions using the Crew Dragon, said SpaceX's president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell.

"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," Shotwell said.

Crew Dragon Earth orbit experience. Click to enlarge in pop-up window. (Space Adventures)

The Space Adventures free-flyer mission will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The passengers, who will undergo "a few weeks" of training will be in space for up to five days before splashing down in the ocean.

SpaceX designed the Crew Dragon to fly autonomously with support from its mission control in Hawthorne, California, and with minimal actions required by the crew aboard.

Financial details about the mission were not released. From 2001 to 2009, Space Adventures arranged for the flights of seven of its customers on eight missions to the International Space Station, launching on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, for tens of millions of dollars per seat. Space Adventures has an ongoing agreement with Roscosmos, Russia's federal space agency, to fly two of its clients on a dedicated Soyuz spacecraft to the space station in 2021.

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) estimated that the Crew Dragon's per seat cost to be $55 million in a report issued in September 2019.

In addition to the Space Adventures mission, SpaceX is also working toward a private flight to the moon using its Starship spacecraft now under development. In 2018, Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa paid an undisclosed amount to reserve the flight, which he dubbed the "#dearMoon" project. In addition to launching on the mission himself, Maezawa said he planned to invite some of his favorite artists to accompany him on the trip.


Composite image showing a rendering of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft set against an orbital view from NASA's 1966 Gemini 11 mission. Space Adventures is offering seats on a Crew Dragon to fly as high as the Gemini 11 crew's record altitude. (NASA/SpaceX)

SpaceX's first Crew Dragon set to launch with an astronaut crew is seen after completing acoustic tests in February 2020. (SpaceX)

Space Adventures' free-flyer orbital mission will fly up to four private citizens aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. (SpaceX)

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