|A JOURNEY TO SPACE IS NOT A JAUNT TO
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov)
The already remarkable times we live in seem to have acquired one more
distinctive feature: you can always find a dozen or so desperate
characters ready to look into a shark’s mouth, dance on the brink of an
awakening volcano, or slip under an advancing avalanche.
Over the past few decades we have tried more or less successfully to
broaden our horizons and take a detached view of ourselves from near-Earth
space. Since 1998, the world community has been building the International
Space Station (ISS) in orbit. For various reasons, the station will not be
completed until the next decade, but 2001 witnessed a visit to it by an
interested civilian from Earth, adding a new dimension to extreme tourism.
Here I feel compelled to add that the development of such tourism is a
natural process, and there is no sense questioning the pleasure of
vacationing tourists. But one thing is interesting.
In the past two years scarcely a report has been issued by Russia or the
United States that has not commented on the possibility of manned flights
in the near future to the Moon and then Mars. Mark you, however, that such
programs, regardless of their source, are not strong on practical details.
However, whereas the Americans began with general deliberations and now
and again announce in the press possible deadlines for interplanetary
expeditions that differ by as much as a few years, Russia launched its
Moon program with plans for a round-the-moon journey for tourists.
Today Energia, the largest Russian space corporation, in the teeth of the
Russian Space Agency’s (Roskosmos) official disapproval, is actively
marketing a $100 million trip around the Moon. And this despite the fact
that Russia has only just begun negotiating with foreign investors on a
project to build a spaceship capable of such a voyage.
But never mind the Moon. The ISS has proven to be exotic enough for a
fifth tourist: an American of Hungarian origin, 58-year-old Charles
Simonyi, one of the founders of the software giant Microsoft and a lover
of classical music and painting. He will ride to the station on board
Russia’s most reliable workhorse rocket, the Soyuz, which all on its
own, putting every ounce of strength into the effort, kept the station
manned for more than a year in the aftermath of an American shuttle
I am no judge of the future tourist’s professional training or the value
of his scientific program “in the interests of several space
agencies.” But one thing is clear: the Russian-U.S. manned program,
which just now pulled out of its critical nosedive with tremendous pain,
and which is the only one in the world except for China’s, badly needs
experienced and practiced professionals rather than amateurs.
Now a few words about the technical aspects of the business, which make
tourist flights aboard Soyuz craft super-extreme. I think the pilot Musa
Manarov, a veteran Russian cosmonaut who spent a total of more than 18
months in space, said it right in 2001 after tourist Dennis Tito made a
brief visit to the ISS: “G-forces during take-off off and landing are
the principal difficulty. In my time cosmonauts had to be carefully
screened. The explanation was that doctors chose candidates with extra
stamina because they did not know where and when the man would go up and
under what conditions. Although I joined the cosmonauts’ team in 1976, I
did not fly until 1987. Today’s selection criteria are less rigorous,
but not much. Even the first space tourist, Tito, was checked thoroughly.
Who needs a dead tourist in orbit or upon landing?”
Comparing the Russian and American spacecraft, he said: “Our system
differs from theirs, but both have their pluses and minuses. In general,
G-forces are high in both cases. Our descent is steeper but shorter, while
a U.S. shuttle, although following a gentler slope, provides a longer
experience of its ‘pleasures.’ One day I rode a shuttle centrifuge
long enough to get sick. Our descent is also psychologically trying for
those unfamiliar with it. You may remember Tito saying upon landing that
he felt he had been to Paradise. I know for sure what kind of paradise he
meant: he was glad to be alive. Our descent is very impressive: flames
from the burning envelope, shots, jerks from opening parachutes, and
tremendous shaking at the end. Sky divers will understand me: when you are
landing you try to cushion the shock with your feet, but the impact is
still felt. Here you are falling on your back. So the demands on, for
example, the spine are very high.”
In other words, “this is not a jaunt aboard an airliner with a
stewardess and a glass of champagne” to the Canary Islands or the
But what about the $20 million sum Roskosmos gets every time it sends a
tourist to the ISS? This money comes in very handy in the modest Russian
space budget, very handy indeed. But the end does not always justify the
means, if only, in this instance, for the reasons mentioned by Manarov.
Moreover, arithmetic suggests that four tourists over a span of six years,
though a worthwhile addition, cannot be viewed as a sizeable contribution
to the Russian space effort.
On the other hand, space tourism could become a good money earner in the
future. These profitable flights would be shorter than those to the ISS,
yet many times safer and cheaper. I am referring to suborbital tourist
flights during which a module containing adrenaline-seekers flies in the
lower boundaries of space for 5 to 7 minutes, and everyone is happy about
The practical-minded Americans passed a special law two years ago allowing
private initiatives to organize suborbital flights on non-governmental
craft at their own risk and peril. The effort met with a good response.
Today, Virgin Galactic, a company that does not even have its own craft in
the design stage, has managed to sell 200 tickets to space, each priced at
$200,000. It has cleared $40 million without taking any risks or holding
any talks with partners.
That’s it. But already Russia’s Myasishchev Experimental Engineering
Plant has come up with detailed plans for an aerospace system, based on
the M-55 high-altitude plane, that is meant for suborbital tourist
flights. Moreover, the project is being sponsored by Roskosmos and so is
part of the official space program.
We therefore see that Russia needs only American wisdom to rid its space
research program of deadwood, and spare space tourists from excessive