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Isle of Man based space tourism firm Excalibur Almaz has said that it will be ready to rocket the rich to the Moon by 2015.

The company told a space tourism conference that it was planning the first test flight of its fleet of second-hand ex Soviet capsules and space stations in 2014 and would be ready to send a well-off civilian on a lunar trip the following year, The Telegraph reports.

The company has so far purchased four capsules and two disused space stations - once part of the Soviet era "Almaz" ("Diamond") programme - from the Russians, and plans to get launch rockets from the same source.

Excalibur Almaz is that same firm that said back in 2009 that it would be offering week-long tourist trips in space from 2013 for $35m. So clearly, it's moved a deadline or two before, and the price has also gone up by quite a lot. The firm reckons the first few trips to the Moon will cost £150m, falling to £50m over the next ten years of trips.

As well as forking out the whopping trip fees, the would-be space tourist will also have to give up around a year-and-a-half of their lives to fly the thing themselves.

Company founder Art Dula framed the possible journey as a scientific exploration rather than space tourism per se.

"We want to have the same kind of tradition that Britain had in the 16th and 17th centuries when its explorers went to the ends of the Earth seeking knowledge and information and bringing back wealth," he said.

"I don't know how much wealth they will bring back, but the first person to fly it will earn a place in the history books."

Space tourists/explorers with Excalibur will have to go up three to a capsule, undergoing a year in training before the launch. Once they make it into orbit, they would dock with the refitted space station, which will then thrust its way to the moon quite slowly, making the round trip in four to six months.

Because of the low-thrust engines, Dula figures that highly-trained astronauts won't be needed.

"Frankly, this type of space flight is so different to anything that has been before that there is no advantage in having someone that has a steely eye and can make a decision in half a second," he said. "With the kind of equipment we have, you could make a decision overnight and sleep on it."

The capsules are reusable re-entry vehicles (RRVs). Some were sent up and brought down in the 1970s, but never with any people inside. The two space stations are refitted Almaz orbiter spacecraft, which were manned surveillance mini-stations designed to spy on the Soviet Union's cold-war enemies while pretending to be research platforms. The Almaz spy-craft which went into space spent most of their time operating unmanned under remote ground control, though crews did visit at times aboard Soyuz capsules.

Fearing a possible space battle with the Americans, Soviet space chiefs actually fitted at least one Almaz platform with a powerful cannon which was test-fired in orbit, though no doubt any gun turrets have been removed from the modern examples. All of the Excalibur fleet has been upgraded by bolting on "off the shelf" modern systems.

The firm will be looking as much at sovereign governments as at wealthy individuals, since the timescale means science experiments could be conducted on the trips. ®

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