Moscow (AFP)

The world has entered the "exciting" era of space tourism in 2021, with the proliferation of flights into orbit, the president of Space Adventures, one of the pioneers of this fierce celestial competition, told AFP on Friday.

"It's really a very exciting time for us", enthuses Tom Shelley, eyes clear, a pretty handkerchief protruding from the pocket of his suit jacket, during an interview with AFP in Moscow.

The American company he heads, Space Adventures, and the Russian space agency Roscosmos are due to send two Japanese tourists to the International Space Station (ISS) in December.

Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yozo Hirano will stay there for 12 days.

Roscosmos and Space Adventures had already collaborated between 2001 and 2009 to send seven extremely wealthy entrepreneurs into space.

Their last client was Canadian Guy Laliberté, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil.

The resumption of this cooperation comes in the midst of the space tourism race, with the successive private flights organized this year by the American billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, as well as the Briton Richard Branson.

“2021 is truly a fascinating year for the private space flight industry,” notes Mr. Shelley.

"It's curious that everything is done at the same time".

- The future, "it's now" -

According to him, the general public is now "more aware" of the entry into the age of space tourism.

"It is no longer just a subject that we talk about as something that will take place in the future: it is happening now," he continues.

Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, during an interview with AFP in Moscow on October 15, 2021 Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

The space sector has experienced upheavals in recent years with the arrival of several private players who dream big.

This is for example the case of SpaceX, Elon Musk, which launches rockets for NASA, prepares the conquest of Mars and performs civilian flights.

A group of amateurs was successfully sent into orbit around the Earth in September, a first.

Billionaire Richard Branson and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have each created companies offering flights of minutes into space.

For Space Adventures, it is therefore about not being left behind and carving out your share of the space pie.

As for Roscosmos, the financial attraction is all the stronger as the Russian agency, already undermined by technical disappointments and corruption scandals, lost the juicy monopoly of flights to the ISS with the entry into the running of SpaceX.

This represents a shortfall of several tens of millions of euros per seat for the Russian agency.

"Our Russian partners have been really very accommodating" in resuming the partnership with Space Adventures, underlines Mr. Shelley.

- Exorbitant price -

For the latter, beyond making dreams come true, space is also a place that brings people and countries together, overcoming differences and tensions.

"Space cooperation, in particular, seems to somehow overcome the political difficulties that exist between the United States and Russia," he notes as well.

Mr. Shelley recognizes, however, that space tourism remains for the moment out of reach for ordinary people and reserved for the ultrarich.

Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, during an interview with AFP in Moscow on October 15, 2021 Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV AFP

The cost of a seat on the Soyuz rocket is between 50 and 60 million dollars, he says, refusing, however, to specify the price of a spacewalk.

"Some people have to put their hands in their pockets so that others will emulate them as prices go down," says Shelley, explaining that his customers see themselves as "pioneers who are opening new doors. ".

A trip to the stars therefore continues "to be a relatively expensive and difficult undertaking," he understands.

"I think it will remain aimed at those who have substantial means for some time to come."

© 2021 AFP

Keywords: tom shelley, pioneers, space adventures, flights, space tourism, competition, president, proliferation, afp, moscow, advent, roscosmos, world, the american, shelley.