The high cost of going into space

Yesterday Space Adventures announced that they have finalized the contracts for the next two tourists to visit the ISS. The company didn’t disclose the names of the tourists, saying only that more details would be released “in the coming weeks”. That’s not too surprising: the company had been dropping hints for some time that they were in negotiations with a number of prospective tourists. The dates of the flights, fall 2008 and spring 2009, are not surprising either, since those are the next two available flight opportunities (the seats in the next two flights, this fall and next spring, have been secured for guest cosmonauts from Malaysia and South Korea.)

What was surprising, though, was the news as reported by the AP that the cost of a trip to the ISS was going up significantly, to as much as $40 million. ( also reported the increase, saying the cost would now be “no less than $30 million”.) Space Adventures’ Eric Anderson said that the increase was due primarily to the weak dollar. However, there are a few factors to suggest that this is not the only factor:

  1. The dollar has grown weaker compared to the ruble: from about 32 rubles to the dollar in 2002 to 25 rubles today. But that would mean that a flight that cost $20 million in 2002 would cost a little over $25 million now, everything else being equal. (A $25-million price in 2002 would be a little over $30 million now.) It’s tough to get to $40 million on that alone.
  2. While the dollar was relatively strong compared to the ruble in 2002, it was actually weaker in 2001: about 28.5 rubles to the dollar in April 2001, around the time Dennis Tito made his historic flight to the ISS. (You can calculate historic currency rates here.)
  3. Russian reports of the price has typically always been quoted in dollars, not rubles, such as this article from May by the RIA Novosti news agency. That article, incidentally, said that the price Roskosmos was charging from Soyuz seats was going up to $21.8 million.

It’s not surprising that currency rates are making Russian spaceflights more expensive, but it doesn’t seem like it can be the only factor to explain the increase. Other factors, such as the increased cost of raw materials for the production of Soyuz spacecraft and launch vehicles (which has affected the price of other Russian vehicles in the last couple of years), as well as the laws of supply and demand, may play a significant role as well.

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