A Russian millionaire politician who went on a controversial flag-planting voyage to the North Pole last month is in line to become the country's first paying space passenger as early as next year, the business daily Vedomosti reported Monday.
Vladimir Gruzdev, 40, who is co-owner of Russia's Seventh Continent grocery chain as well as a parliamentary deputy, already has gone through medical tests and received the Russian space agency's go-ahead for a flight to the international space station, the publication quoted an unnamed source at Russia's Energia rocket company as saying.
Vedomosti said Gruzdev declined comment on his potential flight status when asked about it on Friday. In April, however, he told the daily that he was interested in a spaceflight. His current reluctance to comment may indicate that negotiations for the space trip have not yet been completed.
On Friday, Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov told reporters that negotiations with a Russian would-be space passenger were under way, but he refused to give his name. "All I can say is that it's a serious, respectable person, a businessman and politician. Also young," he said.
Perminov said the Russian prospect could fly in 2009, but Vedomosti said Gruzdev's flight could come as early as September 2008. It also said the cost of the flight would be in the range of $20 million to $25 million — which is in line with what past space passengers have paid.
Since 2001, five millionaire space passengers — known popularly as "space tourists" and officially as "spaceflight participants" — have gone on trips to the international space station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Four of them were U.S. citizens, and one was from South Africa. If Gruzdev followed the timetable reported by Vedomosti, that would make him the first Russian space tourist.
Gruzdev would arguably be the most prominent space tourist to date, at least in his home country. Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $820 million, largely based on his interest in Seventh Continent as well as the MKapital real-estate company. He is also a member of the Russian parliament's lower house, representing the pro-presidential United Russia Party.
His most recent brush with fame came last month, when he joined an underwater expedition to the North Pole that was aimed at bolstering Russia's claim to a wide swath of Arctic territory. The expedition, which made the 14,000-foot-deep trip in two submersible vessels, planted a Russian flag on the seafloor — drawing criticism from other nations that have rival claims on the Arctic.
Space tourism has so far been an extreme niche market for wealthy foreigners at Russia's Federal Space Agency. But the cash-strapped agency has made the most of the publicity generated by sending intensely trained amateurs aboard its Soyuz rockets from the launch pad that Russia rents in Kazakhstan to link up with the space station.
In April, U.S. software billionaire Charles Simonyi arrived at the station with a hamper of gourmet food from no less than lifestyle guru Martha Stewart to celebrate Russian Cosmonaut's Day during his 10-day trip.
Simonyi's flight, like the four earlier flights by paying passengers, was brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures. The company recently said it reserved two seats on future Soyuz craft with a price tag of $40 million each, for the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2009.
Space Adventures declined to comment on the statements coming out of Russia.
"We have not announced who will fly in either the fall of '08 or the spring of '09," Eric Anderson, the company's president and chief executive officer, told MSNBC.com on Tuesday. He said Space Adventures was talking to "a number of people, including more than one Russian," about filling those seats.
However, Anderson said the company would continue to observe its policy of not discussing the status of negotiations until a firm deal is struck. He said he expected to make an announcement related to the 2008 trip — and perhaps 2009 as well — sometime in the next couple of months.
This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC.com.