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msnbc.com

After months of negotiations, NASA and its space partners have published the “rules of the road” for travelers to the international space station — whether they’re professionals, researchers or thrill-seeking millionaires. The formal crew criteria, released Thursday, indicate that Russia will play the lead role in selecting space tourists. They also make clear that rascals need not apply.

The criteria were adopted earlier this month by the space station’s Multilateral Coordination Board. The board includes officials from NASA and the other space agencies supporting the 16-nation, $60 billion-plus space station effort, including Russian, European, Canadian and Japanese representatives.

The space station partners came up with the new rules in the wake of California millionaire Dennis Tito’s controversial tourist flight to the space station last April. Tito negotiated his deal with the Russians, for a reported price of $20 million. At several points during the preparations, NASA seemed close to vetoing the plan, citing safety concerns. Just weeks before the scheduled launch, NASA barred Tito from training at Johnson Space Center in Houston with his two Russian crewmates, touching off a one-day walkout by the cosmonauts.

In the end, Tito’s trip went off without a hitch, and this week the world’s second paying “space flight participant” — South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth — is going through his own training in Houston with nary a word of protest from NASA.

The 28-year-old Internet tycoon made a deal with the Russians for roughly the same $20 million price paid by Tito. But Shuttleworth doesn’t consider himself a tourist, since he plans to participate in scientific research while he’s on the station.

Millionaire fits criteria
NASA spokeswoman Debra Rahn told MSNBC.com that the international space station partners gave the final go-ahead for Shuttleworth’s flight on Jan. 10, using the criteria published Thursday.

The newly released document specifies the requirements for professional astronauts bound for the space station, as well as for space flight participants — tourists, journalists, scientists, teachers, even astronauts from space agencies that are not formal partners in the space station effort. The participants won’t need to have as much training, but they also will be more limited in what they can do and how long they can stay.

The criteria cover the months-long “expedition” missions as well as for weeklong “taxi” missions, the short-term trips that are required every six months to replace the station’s Russian-built escape capsule. Shuttleworth, for example, is due to be launched on a taxi mission in late April, accompanied by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko and Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori.

The provisions for selecting the professional astronauts follow a well-worn track, but they blaze a new trail for tourists and other space flight participants. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Short-term visitors will be nominated by the space agency providing the ride to the space station, “coordinated through the standard ISS operations planning processes.” That means NASA chooses who goes on the space shuttle, and Russia chooses who goes on Soyuz capsules. Since NASA bars tourists from flying on the shuttle, that means Russia has the only game in town for paying passengers.
  • Visiting crew members will have to meet medical criteria as well as standards for “general suitability.” Candidates could be disqualified if they abuse alcohol or drugs, if they have indulged in dishonest, criminal or “notoriously disgraceful” conduct, or if they belong to organizations that reflect poorly on the space station partners. “This language is really pretty much the kinds of things that you see in a government background investigation … for a person requiring a security clearance,” said Charles Precourt, chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office, who helped draw up the guidelines.
  • Visiting crew members should be nominated at least six months before their scheduled flight. An international group known as the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel has to give its stamp of approval to the nominations. If the members of the panel can’t agree on the crew list, the matter could be appealed to the Multilateral Coordination Board, said Michael Hawes, who is NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space station and chairman of the board. Further appeals could be made to the heads of the space agencies, then to a special intergovernmental panel.
  • The visiting crew members should train with the expedition crew members who will be their hosts on the space station. If that’s not possible due to scheduling problems, the visitors could train with a backup crew, Precourt said.
  • Minimum training for short-term visitors riding a Soyuz would include a week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and shuttle astronauts paying a visit to the station would have to train for at least a week at Russia’s Star City facility, Precourt said. However, more specific training requirements would be laid out on a case-by-case basis.
  • The visitors should have at least an “intermediate low” level of proficiency in Russian if they’re flying on a Soyuz, or in English if they’re flying on the shuttle — or else they’ll have to have a crew member who can translate for them.
  • Space flight participants would not be eligible for a long-term stay aboard the space station until the outpost could handle more than three live-aboard residents, which won’t happen for the next couple of years at least.

Some of the other issues that caused concern in the run-up to Tito’s flight — such as liability during a tourist’s space flight — were not addressed in the crew criteria. Hawes said the liability issue, as well as the detailed requirements for medical fitness and training, were being handled by other groups.

The cash-strapped Russian space industry says it needs multimillion-dollar passenger fares to survive, but for now at least, NASA won’t be getting into the tourist business — or allowing its astronauts to participate in commercial activities. Hawes said, however, that such possibilities were being considered within the agency.

“What we tried to do was not prejudge that, but make criteria that could stand in either case,” he said.

The new space race
The Russian and American companies involved in organizing Tito’s and Shuttleworth’s trips — including Virginia-based Space Adventures, the Russian rocket company Energia and Dutch-based MirCorp — say there are other would-be space passengers ready to follow in their footsteps. MirCorp and its partners, as well as “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett, are even hoping to use space flight as the focus for future television programming.

Eric Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures, said he welcomed the agreement on space passenger regulations.

“We have a number of potential candidates for future opportunities, as early potentially as November of ’02,” he told MSNBC.com. “So clarity with regard to opportunities like this clearly helps us attract more clients.”

Anderson marveled at how smoothly the preparations for Shuttleworth’s flight have gone: “The Shuttleworth flight has certainly been much smoother in terms of interagency operations than Mr. Tito’s was ... and because of documents like this, I’m sure that future flights will be even smoother than Mr. Shuttleworth’s.”

MirCorp President Jeffrey Manber, who helped with the early stages of Tito’s negotiations with the Russians, also welcomed the news.

“Anything that reduces uncertainty, and anything that we can make a business plan on, is a good thing,” he said. “We view it as an extremely positive development, subject to the understanding that as we broaden the base of people who go to space, they may not always match the regulations 100 percent.”

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