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David Miller: Welcome To The New Kind Of Tourism

David Miller Online: All Aboard, Welcome to the New Kind of Tourism

The past month has been a rough one for United States–Russian relations. First of all a highly placed FBI agent was arrested on charges he was a spy for the Russians and this resulted in last weeks tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats by both sides. However just when one imagined that they where back in the times of the Cold War, another row erupted between the two countries which brought them back to the present with a distinctly 21st Century problem. Last week NASA refused to allow American millionaire Dennis Tito to fly to the fledgling international space station Alpha after he paid the Russians US$20 million to join their crew. The incident is considered to be a serious blow to the already strained relationship between the US and Russia over the building of the station and has put a new and contentious issue onto the agenda: space tourism.

The problem began when Tito, a California investment adviser and former NASA engineer, initially offered $20 million for trip to the Russian Space Station Mir. However time was against that deal - Mir fell to Earth last Friday. With that deal cancelled, Tito again worked with the Russians and it was agreed that he could fly to Alpha on a Soyuz rocket on the next flight. The agreement hit trouble when Tito and his Russian cosmonaut crew arrived at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston to begin training for the mission and NASA managers at the space centre refused to allow Tito access to the facility. This prompted Tito’s Russian cosmonaut crewmates to leave als well.

The issue of the Tito flight is still to be resolved. Despite a series of meetings between the Russian Aeronautics and Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) and NASA in recent weeks that a set of guidelines are to be put in place determining who can fly to the space station, the Russians remain adamant that Tito should be allowed to fly to Alpha on a Soyuz rocket April 30 for a week-long visit. The Russians agreed in principle to adhere to the guidelines but want an exception granted for Tito. NASA is staunchly opposed to the plan saying that at this stage of proceedings the idea of citizen travellers to the station is premature.

NASA believes that by carrying civilians into space, there is a safety threat while in orbit. The agency claims that having a non-professional crew member would mean he they needed constant supervision, that they lack emergency training, lack sufficient Russian skills, and would "add a significant burden to the (mission) and detract from the overall safety of the international space station," the agency said in a statement. NASA pointed to the U.S.S. Greenville collision with a Japanese tourist vessel as proof of having non – professional personnel participate in hazardous operations.

The problem for the United States is that it needs Russian help to complete the station. The Russians have agreed to supply the project with a new Soyuz spacecraft every six months and while these craft act as ‘taxis’ to the US$100 billion project, in the same way the shuttles do, they are also designed to be the station’s emergency escape craft as well. While Alpha is an international project involving 16 countries, it is the United States and Russia leading the way, therefore the US needs Russian help. The Russians’ only problem is that they need money.

There have already been disagreements between the two agencies over funding and NASA has been critical of Rosaviakosmos for numerous financial and technical setbacks that have delayed construction on the $100 billion project. One method in which they are reportedly now looking towards to help with the funding shortfalls is routinely selling one of the three seats to wealthy travellers with a taste for adventure and a wish to experience space flight and due to contractual agreements there appears little NASA can do about it.

What the Tito case does is put ‘space tourism’ onto the agenda and opens up the door, however slightly, to those with the money to allow them to venture into space. Space travel for citizens has been a vision that has existed ever since the early days of space travel but was always considered something in the very distant future. However the Russian idea that Tito and others can travel into orbit, if they have the funds, has suddenly brought it, and all the implications that go with it, forward to the present.

Space tourism could therefore become the next rich man’s sport if the Russians pursue this method of fund raising. Should Tito be allowed into space, even over NASA’s disapproval, what is there to stop other wealthy individuals contacting Russian mission control and signing up for the ride? Another consideration is the price of the seat. How much should someone pay for their passport to a weeks stay at the international space station, is US$20 million to much or to little to cover the costs of sending someone into orbit?

Whether Dennis Tito becomes a space tourist or not will remain to be seen, but either way, do not plan on trying to book a seat on the next Russian flight. If NASA does back down and allow Tito to fly it is doubtful they will allow others to follow so easily. If they concede they have no control over those Russia chooses for their crews then even mortgaging the house will not get you on board. Space tourism, if it happens, will be the preserve of a few, and as a cash-strapped Russian space authority is involved, only an incredibly wealthy few.

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