HOUSTON — Russia’s first would-be home-grown space passenger has lost his bid to fly into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in October, Moscow sources have told MSNBC.com.
Late Thursday night, after prolonged negotiations, Russia's Federal Space Agency rejected the candidacy of construction mogul Sergey Polonsky, and instead designated a 45-year-old professional military cosmonaut to fill that seat.
Space agency spokesman Vyacheslav Davidenko told the RIA Novosti news agency in Moscow that medical questions had arisen. Thus, he concluded, the agency “made the decision about the inexpediency of the accomplishment of his flight.”
Russia launches three-seat Soyuz spacecraft to the international space station every six months. Two of the seats are occupied by members of the long-term expedition crew, who remain aboard the station, but the third seat is usually available for a short-term paying passenger. The passenger returns to Earth after about a week in space with the previous expedition's crew.
In recent years, the third seat has been filled by European Space Agency astronauts on brief research missions, as well as by self-financed space passengers such as American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth.
Polonsky, a 31-year-old millionaire from St. Petersburg, had been campaigning for the seat for three years. In 2002, he passed the Medical Commission's tests for spaceflight and completed basic Soyuz flight training at the Star City cosmonaut center, northeast of Moscow, but suspended his efforts over disagreements on the payment.
Two months ago, when another prospect for this October’s third seat was rejected for medical reasons, Polonsky renewed his negotiations . “It’s simple supply and demand,” he told a reporter, underscoring the fact that if the space agency didn’t accept his offer, they would make no money at all from the seat.
The millionaire, who appears in public accompanied with four bodyguards, has long been a fan of extreme sports. Recently back from a camping trip to Cambodia, he told a reporter, “It’s not hard to have a lot of money, it’s hard to know how to spend it with stryle.”
The reference to medical issues might seem puzzling to observers, considering that Polonsky had already passed a medical exam. More realistic reasons for the collapse of negotiations appear to relate to irreconcilable differences over insuring a refund if his flight failed to occur for any reason, as well as his height.
“The parties have still been unable to reach understanding on essential terms and conditions of the contract,” a source close to the negotiations told Russia's Interfax news agency on Wednesday. Although they had agreed on a price, the source continued, “the parties have been unable to reach mutual understanding as regards responsibility in case the flight is canceled.”
Polonsky has already reportedly transferred “several million dollars” into an escrow account, with the rest of the money due this week. The agreed-upon price was not disclosed. Traditionally, the asking price is $20 million, but the Europeans have reported paid only $12 million apiece for a package deal involving five flights.
The Russian space agency depends on foreign sales of space services and hardware for about half its annual budget. It is seriously underfunded by the government.
The second deal-breaking reason, his height, had never been considered that serious an impediment. At 195 centimeters (6-foot-4), he is 2 inches over the official upper limit. But space agency officials in Moscow had earlier told journalists that “at this stage of development of the space industry, this is not serious enough to reject the candidate.”
Since each cosmonaut’s spacesuit is tailor-made, size isn’t an issue. However, he must be able to fit into the form-fitting acceleration couch inside the Soyuz. The couch is mounted on shock absorbers that bounce when the capsule hits the ground, and anything extending beyond the physical frame of the couch — like a head — could hit other parts of the capsule.
During the negotiations, Polonsky expressed a practical view of the problem: “They have a normal business approach,” he explained to the Moscow Times. Space officials reportedly told him, “If you pay, we’ll find a solution.”
The Soyuz crew
Polonsky had visited Houston last month for a week’s familiarization training on space station hardware. He was taught how to use the crew equipment, and what to do in emergencies. He did not meet with American journalists.
However, the other two members of the Soyuz crew, who will comprise the 10th long-duration expedition to the station, held a press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The Soyuz will be commanded by Russian pilot Salizhan Sharipov, an ethnic Uzbek from now-independent Kyrgyzstan who remained a Russian citizen after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Veteran American astronaut Leroy Chiao will be the flight engineer. Their ethnic identities make them the first “all-Asian” space crew in history, not counting the solo flight of Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei.
Launch is scheduled for Oct. 9, and the crew will dock the Soyuz TMA-5 vehicle to the station two days later. After a week of handover activities, the station’s current crew — Gennady Padalka and Michael Fincke — will return to Earth in the Soyuz TMA-4 craft that has been attached to the station since April. The third crew member of the TMA-5 vehicle would return to Earth with Padalka and Fincke aboard TMA-4, for a space mission of eight to 10 days.
With Polonsky eliminated for the third seat, the selection has fallen to Yuri Shargin. Unusually, he is the only military officer in the cosmonaut corps to have been selected from the Russian Space Force (other officers came from the Russian Air Force).
The newly named head of the Space Force, Lt. General Vladimir Popovkin, had been pressing for Shargin’s candidacy for months. He will fly as a researcher for the Space Force, Popovkin said: “The Space Force has many questions and the officer will only be able to answer them after his return from orbit.”
Popovkin replaced Anatoly Perminov in the Space Force command after Perminov was unexpectedly been named head of the entire Russian space program earlier this year.