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Soyuz reserved for private trip to space station

Explorers sought with $20 million to burn

By Richard Stenger

Space Adventures reserved two of three seats on a Soyuz rocket.
Space Adventures reserved two of three seats on a Soyuz rocket.

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(CNN) -- Two paying passengers will fly on what is billed as the first privately funded mission to the international space station (ISS), Russian and private space officials announced Wednesday.

The flight, which will include a professional cosmonaut pilot, will launch on a Russian Soyuz craft in early 2005, according to the Russian space agency and a U.S. firm helping organize the expedition.

The asking price for each round-trip ticket? Twenty million dollars, much of which will go the cash-strapped Russian space agency, known as Rosaviakosmos.

"We are pleased to provide the means for this ... mission and are equally committed to the future of private space travel," Rosaviakosmos spokesman Sergei Gorbunov said in a statement.

The Russian space agency earned millions by sending up billionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth in 2001 and 2002, but suspended tourist flights in February after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart.

The disaster grounded the shuttle fleet, making Russian spacecraft the sole means to transport supplies and crews to the space station, which currently has a crew of two.

Arlington, Virginia-based Space Adventures secured a contract with Rosaviakosmos to reserve the seats and find the passengers, who must undergo extensive training in Moscow before the launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson, who announced the agreement at a press conference in New York attended by Tito, said the mission would be self-sufficient, bringing its own food and supplies. The tourists might bring up additional cargo for the station crew.

"This mission in particular has been designed to provide great benefit to all parties, not only for the explorers who fly, but also to the ISS program as a whole," Anderson said in a statement.

But as Space Adventures looks for prospective clients, some major hurdles remain. NASA, the primary space station partner, must first approve them.

And the candidates must have deep pockets. U.S. pop singer Lance Bass and former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver had made extensive preparations to ride in a Soyuz to the station after Shuttleworth, but in the end neither could come up with enough money.

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