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Innovation

How one overlooked company paved the way for Blue Origin and SpaceX

Not all private space players make as much noise as Musk, Bezos, and Branson.

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The self-described “world’s premier space exploration company” is not SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic. Nor is it Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or any of the old-school aerospace firms. Instead, it is Space Adventures — a mysterious company with a surprisingly successful history of sending paying customers to space that other, noisier players like Branson and Bezos are striving to match.

Based near Washington, D.C., Space Adventures has sent seven paying clients into space since its first mission in 2001— including American entrepreneur Dennis Tito and video-game developer Richard Garriott. It plans to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the International Space Station by December 2021. By comparison, at the time of writing, Blue Origin has sent four people, only one of whom paid their way, to space, and Virgin Galactic has sent no paying customers to space.

Such a record of success means there should be more chatter about what may be Space Adventures’ most ambitious launch yet — an upcoming orbital trip in partnership with SpaceX using its Crew Dragon capsule. Announced in February 2020, the journey is supposed to send as many as four paying crew members on an orbital flight — but many people who care about space travel haven’t even heard of it.

Time to lift back the veil on Space Adventures. Here are four critical facts you need to know about the elusive company driving the race to space tourism forward.

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Space Adventures: What is it?

Space Adventures is the brainchild of Eric Andersen, a former intern at the space agency NASA. While interning at the agency in 1995, according to a 2005 Forbes profile, Andersen started thinking more seriously about space tourism as a serious commercial opportunity. Andersen graduated from the University of Virginia in 1996 and immediately started trying to recruit investors from his home in Arlington, Virginia.

Andersen managed to raise $250,000 from early backers, including Peter Diamandis, who founded the XPrize Foundation, and Michael McDowell, who founded an Arctic cruise company. It was an impressive seed fund, but at the time, a seat on a NASA-backed crewed space flight cost about $200 million each, according to Air and Space Magazine.

So the developing firm looked east — to Roscosmos. The Russian space agency was open to supporting Space Adventures’ grand ambition, possibly because there was more precedent for what Space Adventures wanted to achieve. A Soviet private space company had already launched Japanese TV reporter Toyohiro Akiyama in 1990 and British chemist Helen Sharman in 1991 to space with Roscosmos’ help.

After years of Space Adventures negotiations and planning, American entrepreneur Dennis Tito became the first self-funded space tourist when the Soyuz TM-32 launched in 2001.

Dennis Tito returns to Earth.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Space Adventures is based in Vienna, Virginia, today. Clients have spent nearly 90 days total in space, traveling over 36 million miles. Pitchbook claims the firm has 37 employees and lists Andersen and Diamandis as the company’s two board members. Its total valuation is unclear, but funders include technology investor Esther Dyson.

Space Adventures: How many people have gone to space?

Dennis Tito was just the beginning for Space Adventures. So far, Space Adventures has sent seven people into orbit around the Earth on eight flights lasting various lengths of time.

The past crew list includes:

  • Dennis Tito, 2001: The American entrepreneur spent seven days in space.
  • Mark Shuttleworth, 2002: The founder of Ubuntu Linux developer Canonical spent eight days in space and made history as the first South African in space.
  • Greg Olsen, 2005: The research scientist and entrepreneur spent nine days in space.
  • Anousheh Ansari, 2006: Ansari was the first female private space tourist and first Muslim woman in space. She is now CEO of the XPrize Foundation.
  • Charles Simonyi, 2007 and 2009: The Hungarian-born American software engineer led the development of Microsoft Word and Excel. He spent 25 days in space with Space Adventures over the two missions.
  • Richard Garriott, 2008: Garriott, also known as “Lord British,” is a video game developer and the son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott. He spent 12 days in space.
  • Guy Laliberté, 2009: A fire-breathing accordionist and co-founder of performance firm Cirque du Soleil, Laliberté spent 11 days in space.
Anousheh Ansari after her landing.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Space Adventures: What’s next

On December 8, Space Adventures aims to send its eighth and ninth space tourists skyward.

One is the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who founded the online clothing retailer Zozo. He will spend 12 days onboard the International Space Station. Yozo Hirano will join him and document their time onboard the space station for his YouTube channel.

The mission, dubbed MS-20, will launch using a Russian Soyuz rocket slated to take flight from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin will also be onboard.

In 2018, Maezawa announced — with fanfare — he planned to fly eight artists aboard SpaceX’s Starship around the Moon in 2023. Space Adventures will get Maezawa to space a little sooner — but after Space Adventures announced his mission in May 2021, Maezawa indicated that he still plans to go around the Moon with SpaceX in 2023 too.

Beyond these missions, Space Adventures’ website also promises a circumlunar mission, similar to that proposed by SpaceX for Maezawa, that would take travelers to “within a few hundred kilometers of the Moon’s surface.”

The company also claims that one of the participants on a trip to the International Space Station in 2023 will be the first private citizen to participate in a spacewalk. The mission will use a Russian Soyuz rocket. The participants will do spacewalk training in the same place as most of the flight training — the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Moscow.

Space Adventures’ other plans are less specific, however.

Space Adventures: Mystery mission

In February 2020, the company announced plans to send as many as four private citizens on an orbital flight using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, but details were scant. What we do know is that the mission would ostensibly launch from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, and the group would undertake a few weeks of training before a flight of up to five days. The launch window stretched from late 2021 to mid-2022.

But following the initial 2020 announcement, Space Adventures has been curiously silent about the mission and whether it is happening. Since then, Inspiration4 announced a similar mission in February 2021 and launched in September.

On September 15, Inverse contacted Space Adventures and asked about the SpaceX mission and Inspiration4 and commercial space travel. A company spokesperson addressed the questions in part, writing:

“Space Adventures applaud all efforts in opening the space frontier. We are excited for the upcoming Inspiration4 launch and wish Jared and his crew the best. With each flight, more people become aware that opportunities exist for non-professionals to launch to space, no matter the profile. And this is only the beginning for commercial spaceflight. Space Adventures’ missions, Inspiration4 and the recent suborbital flights prove just that.”

Space Adventures did not choose to comment on the SpaceX mission. Snapshots taken using the Wayback Machine dating to September 1 and September 22 show that the company removed a link to the February 2020 SpaceX press release during this period. Previously, the release was under the “Spaceflight Experiences” subheader on the website.

SpaceX also did not respond to an Inverse request for comment about the mission.

The Inverse Analysis — As the next mission prepares for launch, Space Adventures could continue to be a key player in the private race to get to space, and tourism is likely to play an increasingly important role.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic hosted their first suborbital spaceflights in July, while SpaceX hosted the first all-civilian flight to orbit in September. Blue Origin has announced that its next flight, launching October 12, will send up Star Trek actor William Shatner.

In an interview at the 2021 Code Conference, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested that private citizen flights could help drive down the cost of launches. That could mean, over time, space gradually expands from its current clientele of elite astronauts and lucky tourists.

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