CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan. 25 (UPI) -- There is at least one party sitting pretty while the difficult negotiations proceed between the United States and Russia over crew transport services to the International Space Station.
Space Adventures, the travel broker in Arlington, Va., first made a name for itself by parlaying businessman Dennis Tito's unfulfilled plan to travel to Russia's Mir space station -- the aging and financially strapped complex was driven into the ocean before Tito could get there -- into a ground-breaking venture to the new orbital outpost in April 2001.
The firm followed up Tito's trip a year later with a space junket for South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth.
Space Adventures' access to space comes not by a fleet of rockets and launch pads, but via an innovative marketing agreement with the Russian space agency, recently renamed Roskosmos, and its prime contractor, S.P. Korolev Rocket & Space Corp. Energia, a quasi-private Russian company commonly known as RSC Energia.
Among its services, Space Adventures sells rides aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, a three-passenger capsule that is launched on an expendable rocket. Until China's recent entry into human spaceflight, the Soyuz was the only vessel other than NASA's space shuttle that can transport people to orbit. Since the Feb. 1, 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster and the grounding of the fleet, the Soyuz is the only vehicle that has been ferrying crewmembers to and from the ISS.
Soyuz transport is one of the primary contributions of Russia to the space station partnership, which oversees and operates the orbital outpost. The organization, headed by NASA and Roskosmos, are in the midst of negotiating a follow-on agreement for station-crew transportation, as the original pact comes to an end next year. Russia wants to keep as many seats as possible available to sell commercially, and that is where Space Adventures comes in.
The company currently has reserved four more Soyuz seats and is watching with great interest the ongoing U.S.-Russia negotiations for station transportation, Space Adventures president and chief executive officer Eric Anderson told UPI's Space Race 2.
If a proposal favored by NASA works out, Space Adventures may soon find itself with a steady flow of Soyuz seats for sale.
As soon as shuttle flights resume and the station returns to three-person station crews -- crew size was clipped by one to stretch supplies while the fleet is grounded -- NASA wants to barter rides to the station, trading Russia a seat on the shuttle for one on Soyuz. Managers are proposing to use the shuttle to ferry one station crewmember to the outpost mid-way between ongoing long-duration missions.
For example, if the plan were approved and if the shuttle returns to flight as scheduled in May, the shuttle would fly a third crewmember to the space station in July to join the two-member Expedition 11 crew, now scheduled to be launched to the outpost aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in April. That astronaut then would remain aboard for the final three months of the Expedition 11 mission and the first three months of Expedition 12.
NASA would continue to use the shuttle to rotate a third station crewmember, alternating a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, while Russia would continue to launch an American and a Russian to the station on its Soyuz vehicles every six months.
The plan would permanently free one seat aboard every Soyuz flight for Russia to sell commercially. Russia says it receives $20 million for each seat sold.
The proposal also keeps NASA in compliance with a Congressional ban on outright purchase of Russian space hardware. The prohibition is part of the Iran Nonproliferation Act, which was passed by Congress in 2000 after the United States accused Russia of helping Iran develop a nuclear weapons program.
Space Adventures' Anderson said he has several clients waiting for flights. The candidates include entrepreneur Greg Olsen, who trained for a Soyuz flight last year, but was bumped from a flight due to an undisclosed medical concern. Olsen's next opportunity may come in 2006, while another client may go first, as part of the Soyuz mission slated for October.
In addition, Space Adventures is working on a plan for an all-commercial Soyuz flight to the station. Anderson said the private missions would allow participants greater control over what they do in space and how long they stay. The cost of two seats is about $50 million. The third seat would be filled by a professional Soyuz pilot.
The Space Adventures services include training at the Russian space facilities at Star City, located near Moscow, and weightlessness training aboard zero-gravity jet flights.
The company also has taken reservations and deposits from more than 100 people who want to make sub-orbital flights, Anderson said. Space Adventures is working with several startup launch firms, including XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., which is developing the Xerus spacecraft, and Russia's Suborbital Corp., which plans to fly a three-passenger vehicle called the Cosmopolis C-21, a design based on Russia's short-lived Buran space shuttle.
No fare-paying passengers have yet flown into space aboard privately developed rockets, but that does not mean firms are not stepping up to offer the services. At the front of the competition is Virgin Atlantic Airways, which has licensed the technology behind the world's first -- and, so far, only -- passenger-carrying sub-orbital spaceship to develop a fleet for the newly created Virgin Galactic.
Scaled Composites of Mojave, developers of the sub-orbital SpaceShipOne, is designing a five- to eight-person craft for Virgin chief Richard Branson. Flights are scheduled to begin in two to three years.
Interest in private sub-orbital spaceflight blossomed when SpaceShipOne carried off three successful flights between June and October 2004. In doing so, the craft won a $10 million competition called the Ansari X Prize, which was established to open the space frontier for commercial flight.
Space Race 2 is a weekly series by UPI exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight, by Irene Klotz, who covers aerospace for UPI Science News. Email: email@example.com