Soyuz in orbit. Image credit: NASA

Apr 9, 2015 Russia might let tourists live on the ISS

Sen—Besieged by the latest round of financial problems, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is pulling an old ace out of its sleeve—space tourism. However, rather than a short ten day stay, such as the one Sarah Brightman will experience later this year, this time commercial passengers might be able to live onboard the outpost for up to six months, space officials in Moscow said.

In his first meeting with journalists last month, Yuri Koptev, a newly appointed chairman of the Scientific and Technical Council (NTS) of the Russian space agency disclosed plans for a number of new measures to commercialize the underused Russian segment of the ISS.

"There is some consideration that has a good chance of turning into some sort of directive to RKK Energia (Russia's main ISS contractor) to review an option of reducing budget pressure (on the Russian part of the station)," Koptev said, "Maybe we could resort to not just selling a short-term expedition but also long-term flights by reducing our presence there."

Currently, the ISS has a capability to maintain a permanent crew of six people, which is primarily limited by the availability of two Soyuz spacecraft at the outpost, providing three seats each for a crew delivery and serving as lifeboats for emergency evacuation. Within the crew, Russia normally has three seats available for its cosmonauts, while three others are reserved by NASA and its international partners.

Russia pioneered space tourism on the International Space Station in 2001, when the cash-strapped Roscosmos sold one seat onboard a Soyuz heading to the station to an American millionaire Dennis Tito. At the time, the Space Shuttle was used to exchange long-duration crews and Russia had an option of sending short-term expeditions to the outpost, which would deliver a fresh Soyuz lifeboat and then return to Earth a week later, with a preceding spacecraft, when it approached its six-month warranty in space.

However after 2009, the Soyuz took the role of delivering all long-duration expeditions, leaving no seats available to space tourists. Fortunately, Roscosmos enjoyed a growing budget over that period and had little incentive to sell seats onboard its Soyuz.

The only exception was the upcoming mission of singer Sarah Brightman, whose flight became possible thanks to the Year in Space project. During their (almost) year-long-stay in orbit, a NASA astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut would have to skip a once-in-six-months Soyuz lifeboat exchange, leaving two seats available for short-term visitors.

In the meantime, shifts of three Russian cosmonauts permanently living on the ISS have found themselves less busy with scientific research. The main science laboratories of the Russian segment have gradually become grounded by technical problems, so cosmonauts on the station have had more spare time, when not repairing equipment and doing other maintenance work.

Roscosmos could still maintain a symbolic presence on the ISS just for prestige until last year, when sagging oil prices and the European sanctions hit the Russian space budget really hard. At the turn of 2015, as the economic crisis deepened, Yuri Koptev took the chairmanship of the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, becoming essentially a second in command at the troubled agency. Among items on Koptev's resumé is the leadership of Glavcosmos, the first commercial arm of the Soviet space industry formed during Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms of the 1980s. Koptev also led radical commercialization of Roscosmos, as the head of the agency, during the post-Soviet economic collapse of 1990s.

With his typical no-nonsense approach, Koptev hinted that he was ready to sell not just one but two out of three Russian positions on the ISS crew to a highest bidder. "At least one (our cosmonaut) has to be there," Koptev said about future Russian expeditions to the ISS.

Theoretically, it takes just one professional pilot to fly the Soyuz, which can enter orbit rendezvous and dock at the space station in a fully automated mode, with a pilot monitoring equipment and standing by to engage manual control in case of problems with the robotic system. However, if two such tickets were sold it would be the first time that two paying space participants would be onboard the station at the same time, let alone participating in a long-duration flight.

Koptev warned that at this point preliminary research identified no candidates who would be either willing to stay onboard the ISS for half a year or pay an as yet-to-be-disclosed amount for the privilege. "We also have to take into account the fact that in 2017 or 2018, American spacecraft will appear on the scene, which will remove (NASA's) dependency on the delivery of astronauts and that will complicate the commercialization of our potential," Koptev said.

As in the 1990s, selling Russian crew seats is considered as a temporary measure helping Roscosmos to weather the latest economic storm. As early as 2017, Russia plans to launch the first of three new modules, which would give the Russian segment of the ISS long-awaited scientific research potential. "The arrival of these modules will increase the workload on the (Russian) crew by orders of magnitude," Koptev said.

To accommodate the new arrivals, Roscosmos is now actively studying the issues of keeping the ISS operational until 2024, for which there is an agreement in principle. However, Koptev was much more cautious about the latest NASA proposal to operate the station even longer.

"We have a very preliminary request from our American colleagues: let's consider 2027 (for the end of the ISS mission)," Koptev said, "however these (plans) had not been reviewed in detail and today even for 2024 we have a lot of uncertainty starting with technical and ending with political issues."

Under all circumstances, Roscosmos has solid plans to have its newest space station modules operating either with the station or without it. According to Koptev, the three newest modules of the Russian segment and two additional modules in development would be ready to form a new station if necessary.