Furthermore, the ways in which Roskosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) has been trying to branch out into tourism has no benefits for our national space program.
So far nine Russians have booked a space flight aboard a private vehicle Spaceship-2. It was developed by the British-U.S. company Virgin Galactic, which is part of the Virgin Group holding run by Sir Richard Branson. The company is going to demonstrate the first prototype of this spaceship in July.
The managers of Virgin Galactic, the world's first space travel agency with headquarters in the United States, believe that during the first 12 years hundreds of thousands of people may travel into space. True, the flight in zero-gravity conditions will last for just a few minutes, but at $200,000 it's still a bargain.
The American agency is going to set up a fleet of 40 to 45 tourist vehicles. In a decade, three to four spaceships with six tourists on board will be able to travel every day on a two-hour suborbital tour from the spaceport, currently under construction in New Mexico.
Today, the tickets for the first tours have already been sold, and about 85,000 people are ready to make advance payments.
The leaders of Russian cosmonautics started planning to develop space tourism in the age of the Mir orbital complex. But Roskosmos managed to translate its dream into reality only in 2001, when it sent Denis Tito, an American citizen, to the International Space Station (ISS) with the mediation of the U.S. company Space Adventures. Since then, what we consider space tourism have been the flights to the ISS aboard the veteran spaceship Soyuz.
Needless to say, Roskosmos's dream for flights on a mass scale has not come true. So far, only five people have visited the station. The average cost of a weekly flight was more than $20 million.
But the very idea of a fun flight to the ISS is coming to an end. The station's crew will be increased to six people next year. Considering that U.S. shuttles will be put out of operation by 2010, a three-seat Soyuz will be the only spaceship for bringing crews to the ISS and back, and there will be simply no room for tourists.
But what if we cannot do without wealthy tourists in orbit?
Pavel Vinogradov, a pilot-cosmonaut and deputy head of the Energia Rocket Space Corporation, says: "Regrettably, space tourism is a big headache for us today. It does not resolve any financial problems, and undermines the foundations of our cosmonautics. We have to replace young cosmonauts with tourists... They are all good people but they are not professionals. Regrettably, we can only find room for them at the expense of professionals."
But Roskosmos is not giving up. If tourists cannot fly with the crew, they will have to be provided with a separate Soyuz spaceship. Space Adventures reports that the agreement on the first commercial flight was signed with Roskosmos in the first half of June.
What this means is that the weak industrial capacities will have to be diverted from the construction of spaceships for the bigger ISS crews. But this is no problem although it takes more than a year to build a space vehicle. This time, Sergei Brin, one of the founders of the Google search engine and a new Space Adventures' investor, is going to fly into space. Let others judge what he will contribute to the ISS program.
But one thing is clear. Much to our regret, mass space tourism is leaving Russia. We could have kept it if Roskosmos had supported a project of the Myasishchev design bureau to develop a tourist spaceship on the basis of the high-altitude M-55 aircraft. But it remained on paper.
It is much easier to lash out at the lucky neighbor. Early this year, an anonymous source made a tell-tale statement about Virgin Galactic's plans: "Such short-term voyages into the near space, which last minutes and even seconds, cannot even compare with space trips of tourists to the ISS. Moreover, no respectable agency will collect money from hundreds of people if it cannot afford such flights."
This is an emphatic statement but it has nothing to do with reality.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.