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Russians tout plans to launch space hotel by 2016

A hotel in orbit, lunar sightseeing flights and luxury rides into the cosmos — all are part of Russia's vision to ensure it is not left behind in the growing space tourism industry.
Image: Commercial space station
An artist's conception shows a cutaway view of the commercial space station envisioned by Russian companies.Orbital Technologies
/ Source: Reuters

A hotel in orbit, lunar sightseeing flights and luxury rides into the cosmos — all are part of Russia's vision to ensure it is not left behind in the growing space tourism industry.

Russian firms highlighted their plans at the country's premier air show this week at Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, saying the race was on to build a new craft to take people into space following the retirement of NASA's space shuttle.

RKK Energia highlighted plans for a replacement shuttle, and Orbital Technologies said it hoped to build an orbiting hotel with room for seven guests by 2016. Other plans include flying tourists to the dark side of the moon and, by 2030, to Mars.

"Space tourism is a real and fast-growing business," Sergei Kostenko, head of Russian firm Orbital Technologies, said at the MAKS air show. "Whoever builds the first new spaceship now will reap big dividends."

Although Russia currently holds a monopoly on rides to space aboard its Soviet-designed Soyuz, it starts at a disadvantage. Foreign experts say they doubt Russian firms can achieve their ambitious goals because they lack funding, and even Russian officials said it would be hard to rival U.S. private sector firms now competing for contracts with NASA.

U.S. 'has more possibilities'
Funding for the U.S. space program is much higher, and NASA is expected to forge ahead with building a new generation of craft capable of traveling into deep space, with flights into low Earth orbit outsourced to private firms.

"The U.S. has more possibilities than us right now," said Alexander Derechin, deputy chief designer for Russia's partly state-owned space contractor RKK Energia.

He said the United States had made a "very wise decision" in planning a state-funded spaceship for deep-space flight, and that Russia faced tough competition from companies such as the Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin as well as newer ventures such as SpaceX.

"But we must make a state-funded spaceship, though in such a way that it is also commercially competitive. It is a very difficult task," Derechin said.

Trade-show models flank a mockup of RKK Energia's next-generation spaceship at the MAKS-2011 air show near Moscow.

Softer landing than the Soyuz
A decade after it flew the first U.S. millionaire to space in 2001, Energia plans a six-person shuttle which it said would offer a softer landing for the super-rich than its 40-year-old Soyuz craft. It said it hoped it would be operating by 2015.

"People paying for the most expensive ticket in the world must be comfortable, not scared," said Vladimir Pirozhkov, who designed the model of the shuttle on show this week. "This is just a glance at the future, but it is the ultimate transportation dream. It should be desirable."

The Russian commercial space station would include a propulsion module equipped with solar arrays.

Russia cannot sell tourist seats until 2013. It is carrying European and U.S. astronauts — for more than $50 million a ride — on its single-use Soyuz capsule, which provides the only way of getting to the International Space Station since the last shuttle landed in July.

Russian officials say at least one of four U.S. companies at the forefront of the commercial space industry could develop space taxis by 2016 to take astronauts into low Earth orbit, up to an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers).

"We don't want to come late to the market," Derechin said.

Orbital Technologies said the planned new spacecraft would be able to take VIP clients to a hotel it plans to build in orbit 217 miles above Earth, catering for guests paying about $1 million for a five-day stay.

Orbital Technologies' Kostenko said the space hotel would be more comfortable than the space station, but did not promise luxury — vacationers would still have to eat space food, take sponge baths and use vacuum toilets because of weightlessness.

Doubts about Russian goals
Space policy experts said they doubted Russian firms would be able to replace the Soyuz, much less launch a space platform, as quickly as planned.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg said part of the publicity blitz at MAKS was "fantasy," aimed at helping the Russian space agency find outside funding for new boosters, piloted spacecraft and nuclear-powered Mars engines.

The Russian space agency's new chief, Vladimir Popovkin, said at the air show that the agency could no longer afford to spend nearly 50 percent of its budget on human spaceflight.

Oberg said Russia risked quickly losing its monopoly on transportation into space, adding: "This question is really worrying the more thoughtful Russian space strategists."

Russia "depends on an increasingly aging workforce saddled with mostly obsolete ground equipment and a few basic 'old reliable' designs with little prospects for upgrade or improved economy," he said.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.