Britain could become the first country to fly a tourist around the moon, after an Isle of Man-based company announced that it would be ready to take passengers on private lunar expeditions by 2015.
Excalibur Almaz will charge wannabe astronauts an average of £100 million for a six to eight month journey exploring deep space.
Three wealthy individuals, or astronauts from emerging powers, will be crammed into a reusable capsule the size of a waste skip and launched by rocket to a space station. After the two vehicles link up, they will travel on to the Moon.
“It is like how private British companies led expeditions to the South Pacific in the 17th century,” said Art Dula, founder of Excalibur Almaz. “We’ve just gone from seafaring to spacefaring.”
The company, run by Americans, chose to be based in the Isle of Man because of the island government’s commitment to the space industry, which ministers forecast will soon make up more a third of its gross domestic product. The lack of corporation tax and proximity to the City are also advantages.
Unlike SpaceX , its US rival, Excalibur Almaz has not received any American government subsidies. Its biggest advantage is its second-hand Soviet spacecraft which have helped Excalibur Almaz avoid the laborious process of developing and testing new equipment.
Mr Dula, a long-time space enthusiast, bought the kit from Russia after working as a patent lawyer in the industry. He and his business partner are the only investors in the company, which started in 2005.
The entrepreneur says this should help the company take passengers deeper into space than competitors such as Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard Branson’s venture will only allow tourists to orbit the earth, though its price is also less stellar, at £200,000.
James Oberg, a space flight consultant, said there were other companies exploring lunar missions, including as yet anonymous players but that none could start sending people as early as 2015.
However, Ken Pound, a professor of space physics at the University of Leicester, said the company would have to make remarkable progress to fly around the moon by then.
“I would put my money on China getting there sooner,” he said, adding that as the original Soviet designs are old, safety will be an especially key issue for a commercial enterprise.
Assuming wealthy passengers are keen to blast off, the Soviet spacecraft could also help the company break even quickly, Mr Dula said. The start-up costs should be covered between the first and second flight, he said, after which it targets a 50 per cent return on investment in three years.
Tickets for the historic first flight will cost about £150m, with the price falling to about £50m after 10 years. Adventurers will have to submit to six months of full-time training with the Californian company XCorp.
As well as marketing to rich space fanatics, the company is in talks with three emerging economies who want the prestige of sending someone to space without the expense of developing their own space programmes.
The company also hopes to drive revenues by emblazoning adverts across its space station, conducting research for universities and pharmaceutical companies and allowing other expeditions – including government astronauts from countries like China – to rent the space station.
But space brings a new universe of risks for investors.
“Everyone has to remember that space is aggressive, it is not our mother planet,” said Valery Tokarev, a Russian cosmonaut who advises the company.
After two journeys into space, he has one key lesson: “If you make a mistake in space, it will kill you.”