Oct. 3, 2012 -- What's a rich space tourist to do? If you want to fly in space, seats are harder to find than a flight out of Chicago's O'Hare airport during a blizzard. So your only option is to bump an astronaut from a seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft going to the International Space Station.
ABC News has learned that singer Sarah Brightman, of "Phantom of the Opera" fame, will be the next tourist in space, sometime in 2014 or 2015. To get her seat she had to pay the Russian space agency more than the $51 million NASA budgets on average to send its astronauts to the station.
To maintain its presence in orbit when Soyuz seats are limited, NASA had to agree to commit at least one of its astronauts to spend a year in space, instead of the six months they currently stay. Brightman's trip will be announced in Moscow on Oct. 10.
NASA says a year in space has great medical research benefits. Astronauts spending just six months on the space station in the past have suffered from radiation exposure, muscle mass loss, decreased bone density, and vision problems. The research from a year on the space station will help NASA plan for long flights to Mars or an asteroid. It does mean an astronaut will get booted from a flight to adjust for one less seat.
When the space shuttle quit flying last year, it created a conundrum for companies like Space Adventures, whose business -- sending rich tourists into space -- depended upon the resources of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Roscosmos is the only space agency willing to send tourists to space. NASA won't do it, and now they don't have a spacecraft anyway so it's a moot point.
Don't have $50 million to spare? There is a budget option: $200,000 for a suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic' s SpaceshipTwo, which should start commercial flights in a couple of years. SpaceShipTwo is designed to be a six-passenger, two-pilot craft, flying to the edge of space. The flight will be short -- just six minutes of weightlessness, but passengers will be able to unbuckle and float around the cabin. If you have $1 million to spare, you can book one trip for yourself and a few friends.
Boeing would like to get into the space tourism business as well, partnering with Space Adventures at some point to launch from Florida.
Space Adventures offers ten days on the International Space Station, in low Earth orbit, with great views and not-so-great accommodations. But there is zero gravity, which means you get to do somersaults and float as much as you want. For a singer like Sarah Brightman, who thrilled the world when she starred in "Phantom of the Opera," the inspiration should be out of this world.
Rumors flew earlier this week when author J.K. Rowling told an audience in England she had once been offered a seat on a space shuttle for a couple of million dollars. NASA quickly scotched that story.
Space Adventures has flown seven tourists into space since 2001. Clients have paid from $22 million to $35 million in the past, but the limited number of Soyuz seats drove the price to more than $50 million. After all, if NASA is willing to pay $51 million, Russia doesn't need to sell the seat at half price.
Several astronauts reportedly have volunteered for the yearlong mission. The space station, after all, is the only game in town if you are an astronaut. A mission to Mars is still decades away.
When will the U.S. space program get back into flying NASA astronauts into space? Hopefully by 2017. Several companies are working to build and certify human-rated spacecraft to take crew and cargo to the International Space Station.