Space Adventures has been selling extra seats on the Soyuz flights to the ISS to wealthy businessmen at a price of around thirty million dollars for stays in low Earth orbit since 2001. Previous private space travelers have included financer Dennis Tito, computer game designer Richard Garriott, software entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, and Cirque du Soleil creator Guy Laliberté.
Space Adventures has also teamed up with Armadillo Aerospace to create a suborbital flight service similar to the one being developed by Virgin Galactic. Space Adventures also owns Zero G Corporation, which sells rides on a modified Boeing 727 that flies parabolas that simulate microgravity experienced by astronauts flying in space.
Space Adventures is also developing a circumnavigation flight around the Moon, with seats going for a hundred million dollars.
The arrangement between Space Adventures and the Russian Space Agency means that there are three more opportunities through 2015 for the well heeled and adventurous to fly to the International Space Station on their own dime. After that, if all goes as planned, commercial space craft such as the Dragon under development by SpaceX with subsidies from NASA may be available to sell space tourist flights.
It is one of the great ironies of history that formally Communist Russia was the first to understand the commercial possibilities of space travel. This was as much out of necessity to provide money for a cash strapped space program as from an entrepreneurial spirit.
In the meantime, before the second Bush administration, NASA displayed a decidedly hostile stance toward commercial space, believing it to be a threat. This attitude slowly changed in the first decade of the 21 st Century as NASA initiative cooperative ventures with commercial partners. The most prominent of these was the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program that provided seed money and the promise of ISS cargo and crew transport contracts to commercial enterprises such as SpaceX and Orbital Systems to enable the development of commercial space craft.
In a controversial move the Obama administration greatly expanded the commercial space initiative, with subsidies to an expanded number of commercial space firms. Some members of Congress have criticized this policy as an overreliance on unproven, commercial space craft. Others have suggested that the arrangement constitutes "state capitalism" in which the government is the main investor as well as customer for the fledgling commercial space firms.
However, whatever missteps there may be in government policy, it is clear that the private sector is set to assume a greater role in space travel. If a coherent plan for exploring space beyond Low Earth Orbit is developed to replace the canceled Constellation program, the hope is that this development will free NASA from running a space taxi service and henceforth return to its original role of exploring the high frontier of space.