Russia: No space tourists after '09

February 4, 2009 6:06:35 PM PST
Russia won't be sending tourists to the international space station after this year because of plans to double the size of the station's crew, the chief of Russia's space agency said in an interview published Wednesday. Roscosmos chief Anatoly Anatoly Perminov told the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that U.S. software designer Charles Simonyi - who has already flown to the station - would be the last tourist when he blasts off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in March.

The lucrative Russian space tourism program has flown six "private spaceflight participants" since 2001. Participants paid $20 million and up for flights aboard Russian-built Soyuz crafts brokered by U.S.-based Space Adventures Ltd.

"The crew of the space station, as you know, will be expanded this year to six members. Therefore there won't be any possibility for making tourist flights to the station after 2009," Perminov said in the interview posted on Roscosmos' Web site.

Russian Soyuz and Progress craft have been a crucial part of the $100 billion station's upkeep and expansion - particularly in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, which saw the entire U.S. shuttle fleet grounded.

The U.S. space agency, NASA, will be even more reliant on the Russians after 2010 when the U.S. shuttle fleet is grounded permanently, leaving astronauts to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft until NASA's new ship is available, in 2015.

Although government funding has increased during the country's oil-fueled economic boom of the past decade, Russia's space agency was strapped for cash during much of Russia's post-Soviet history.

It was a pioneer in the business to open space travel up to tourists. In recent years, several private companies - including Space Adventures - have raced to build viable operation to run private tours and other space adventures.

California rocket maker Xcor Aerospace last month announced that a Danish man would be the first to ride aboard its privately funded, two-seat rocket ship. Company officials have said tickets were selling for $95,000 each and reservations have been made for 20 flights.

Xcor's main competitor is building SpaceShipTwo, an eight-seat craft that will take passengers some 62 miles above Earth for $200,000 each.

The most recent private citizen to fly aboard a Soyuz craft, computer game designer Richard Garriott, paid a reported $35 million for his seat.

Last year, as Roscosmos indicated that the days for space tourism aboard Russian craft might be numbered, Space Adventures announced it would seek to charter an entire space flight, just for itself. The Russian agency would still run the mission, but Space Adventures would pay for the trip and buy its own Soyuz spacecraft.

It was not immediately clear whether how or if that deal would still go forward in light of Perminov's interview.

A Russian agency spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment after hours Wednesday. A message left for a Space Adventures representative was not immediately returned.