MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov.) - At sea, in air, and in most remote deserts, tourism has long become a gold mine.
Now the farthest and the most dangerous desert of all, outer space, is poised to open its doors to tourists an inch. And the Russians are making the keys.
Space Adventures Ltd., a private U.S. company, has already sent two Americans and one South African to the International Space Station onboard a Russian spacecraft and is going to expand into commercial suborbital flights, which is very good for the Russian space industry for two reasons.
Together with its co-founder Prodea, SA plans to use Russian-made suborbital vehicles. The Explorer, as it has been named, is being designed by the Moscow-based Myasishchev Design Bureau.
SA president Eric Anderson said the project would grant the wishes of millions, as one module will have the capacity to transport up to five people to an altitude of over 100 km (62 miles). Myasishchev, a unit of the leading Russian space company Molnia, makes suborbital vehicles on the basis of the same technology that was used in the famous Buran space shuttle. They bounce into space and back without setting on an orbit.
Anderson aired signing a deal with the Russian Space Agency to ensure quality and compliance control during the Explorer design. The involvement of an official Russian space authority will speed up the project, Anderson said. SA also chose Singapore as the future launch center and training venue for passengers expected to pay $102,000 for a ticket - chicken feed compared to $20 million Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, and Greg Olsen paid for their weeklong space trips, to say nothing of $100 million, Russian Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov's projection for a 15-day circumlunar flight.
Russian space chiefs have repeatedly made clear they were looking seriously at space tourism as an option to pour additional funding into struggling national space effort. However, whether the station is in proper condition for frequent guest visits appears extremely debatable, as ISS partner nations have recently agreed to contract their activities on the orbiter severely in view of impending shortage of Space Shuttle flights.
Given that the station was originally built to be supported by Shuttles, now the entire project is in real jeopardy as the U.S. may ground the Shuttles completely or further reduce the number of agreed-upon flights from the already critical 17. While the ISS relies on Russian single-use three-man Soyuzes, European, Canadian, or Japanese partners - whom the Columbia disaster has in effect barred from working at the station in the foreseeable future - are rightfully more entitled to a place onboard than tourists who serve Russians' purely commercial interests and fuel longtime American frowns upon the unproductive use of the Earth's only operational orbiter.
Apart from that, Russia will just find too few people to buy its $20-million tickets. True, the waiting list is long enough, but few candidates pass complicated survival tests and training, which is in fact antithetic to any business model in which profits rise as turnover increases.
As to the around-the-moon mission, Alexei Krasnov, Russian Space Agency's manned missions chief, confirmed late last November that the project "indeed existed," was being "comprehensively studied," and one ticket would cost "around $100 million." However, there is still great uncertainty about the mission, which makes circumlunar business planning somewhat premature.
This explains why the Singapore option is good for Russians. One reason is that Russian producers will get a long-term well-paid job, making vehicles for crowds of people looking forward to a space dive not implying an exhausting training program. The other is that, if the project proves commercial viability, the Russian Space Agency might be fast enough to stake on a new Gold Bottom - this time the highest bottom ever.