HOUSTON — With only 10 weeks to go before the launch of the next piloted Soyuz spacecraft to the international space station, the Russian space agency is scrambling to find a passenger to ride into orbit in the spacecraft’s third seat. Top-level meetings that should have already decided this issue have been repeatedly postponed.
The competition appears to be between a Russian military officer from the same branch of the armed forces as the new head of the Russian space program, and a 31-year-old Russian millionaire whose strongest argument is the millions of dollars he is willing to pay.
The urgency of crew training schedules means that both candidates will be coming to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston next week without either of them being designated “prime” or “backup.” NASA says both of the “third seat” candidates will undergo a week of familiarization with life aboard the space station.
An open third seat
Two of the three crewmen are already known, since they will comprise the 10th long-duration expedition to the station. 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.
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.
Originally the third seat had been sold to American millionaire Gregory Olsen, but a medical issue arose recently and he was removed from training , at least temporarily. He may be able to resume training next year, according to officials with his Virginia-based sponsoring organization, Space Adventures.
Who could fill the seat?
With the seat suddenly available, Russian space officials debated the most advantageous use for it at short notice. No other non-Russian "tourist cosmonaut" had signed a contract or carried out adequate training. The European Space Agency, which often buys seats on such twice-yearly Soyuz missions, had no research program developed that would justify the expense.
An obvious choice would have been Russia’s only active woman cosmonaut, Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya. She had fully trained for exactly such a mission in 2001 and 2002, but at that time, she was removed from the crew to make room for paying Western customers. Frustrated by these setbacks and reportedly advised that the Russian space program saw no opportunities for women as cosmonauts in coming years, she quit the cosmonaut corps a few months ago to take a job as a Tu-134 co-pilot for Aeroflot.
Other rookie cosmonauts have been waiting for space missions, and the oldest is Yuri Shargin, 45, the only military officer in the cosmonaut corps to have been selected from Russia’s Military Space Forces (other officers came from the Russian Air Force). He was sufficiently trained to fly safely and perform useful experiments, so he became the tentative choice.
Enter the millionaire
But now MSNBC.com has learned that another Russian candidate has appeared: Sergei Polonsky, the wealthy president of the St. Petersburg construction firm Stroimontazh, an aviation sports enthusiast and a stylish dancer at fund-raising events.
He had completed medical screening and pre-flight training in 2002, but negotiations for a flight assignment had foundered over irreconcilable differences in price. The government demanded $20 million, while Polonsky wouldn’t pay more than $8 million.
There were other problems as well. Polonsky reportedly is about 6-foot-4 (196 centimeters tall), more than 2 inches (6 centimeters) above the maximum allowable height. True, each spacesuit is tailor-made, and the new-model Soyuz TMA capsule sports extra leg room and head room. But the excess height could be dangerous during landing, when the seat strokes on pneumatic shock absorbers. In addition, his command of English — a formal requirement for space station visitors — appears weak.
Polonsky is willing to take the risks, however. According to Moscow press sources, once Olsen had become unavailable for the full-price ticket, he stepped forward to repeat his previously rejected offer of $8 million for the flight — knowing that they had no other offers. Nikolai Moiseyev, the deputy chief of the Russian Federal Space Agency, recently conceded that the oft-quoted $20 million price for a trip to the space station was only a general starting point “which can be refined through subsequent negotiations.” Polonsky’s offer showed why he was such a successful businessman.
After some discussions, his plan was tentatively accepted, with a big "if." Polonsky had to come up with all the money by Aug. 16. That approach is strikingly different from the installment plan followed by previous millionaire space passengers, in which most of the money is held in escrow until after the flight.
Could flight be vetoed?
Several top officials of the Russian space program may also veto Polonsky’s attempt to be Russia’s first home-grown millionaire to buy a space ticket, or the first "oligarch in space." Yuri Semyonov, head of Energia, the rocket company that builds and operates Russia’s manned space vehicles, told space agency chief Anatoly Perminov that Polonsky simply couldn’t be trained in time, according to the Russian online news site Gazeta.ru.
But the Soyuz TMA is designed to be flown by two professional cosmonauts, with few flight functions assigned to the third seat. Furthermore, according to Moscow space sources, Polonsky has already completed more than 400 hours of training in basic space survival and operations.
Perminov, who replaced Yuri Koptev as head of the Russian space agency earlier this year, had previously been commander of Russia’s Military Space Forces, a special arm of the Defense Ministry tasked with launching, tracking and recovering space vehicles. The current commander, Vladimir Popovkin, has expressed keen interest in developing a research program in tune with the mission of the Military Space Forces, and Perminov could be expected to favor it, but for the issue of money.
Russian space officials have already been burned once by the no-show of a paying space customer. In 2002, singer Lance Bass was nearly finished with his training for a mission when his funding plan collapsed. Once he missed the final payment date of the first large installment, the Russians expelled him from the training program. For the sake of experience, a backup Russian cosmonaut was flown in his place — but the Russians lost any chance of making money on that flight.
Officials face similar uncertainty for flights in 2005. Although there is a firm contract for a European astronaut to fly on next April's Soyuz mission, the October 2005 mission remains available. Australian author Bradley Trevor Grieve has announced plans to try for that seat, but like Bass, he must develop a media funding plan.
At least for now, no final crew selection for the upcoming October flight is yet required. Both Polonsky and Shargin will be trained by NASA. The crucial decision point probably will come in mid-August, when Polonsky must show them the money. All other factors appear to be secondary to that one issue.