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 disaster.

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 Caribbean.

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 experiencing weightlessness.

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 G-loads.