Feb 4, 2003 |

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has frozen plans to ship tourists into space after the Columbia shuttle disaster left Russian capsules as the only working link to the International Space Station (ISS), space agency officials said Tuesday.

Russia’s Rosaviakosmos, which has sent two tourists into space to pad out its thinning budget, said its manned Soyuz rocket would not be wasted on commercial missions.

Unlike the U.S. shuttle, the Soyuz is not reusable and Russia has said it has a limited supply of capsules. It takes two years to build a Soyuz.

“Space tourism is not a priority. State interests must come first, then commercial interests,” spokesman Vyacheslav Mikhailichenko said. “At the moment, tourism is not possible.”

NASA’s oldest shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated in mid-air on Saturday, killing seven astronauts and forcing the U.S. agency to freeze launches as it hunts for the cause of the disaster.

Without the shuttle, the $95 billion ISS depends on Russian Soyuz manned capsules and Progress cargo ships. Russia had planned only four to five space shots this year, but may have to launch more to deliver sufficient crews and fuel to the outpost.

A Progress cargo capsule was expected to dock with the ISS at around 1500 GMT Tuesday, carrying food, fuel and scientific materials.

Russia has launched the world’s first space tourists — U.S. millionaire Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth — and last year held unsuccessful talks with pop star Lance Bass.

The tourists reportedly paid $20 million, enough to cover the entire cost of a launch. But Rosaviakosmos, which hopes to receive U.S. and European help to finance extra launches, said it would forgo tourist cash.

“Such an amount of money, say $20 million, is a lot for a normal person, but it is not enough to influence the state,” said Mikhailichenko.


Plans to screen a space television game show, which promised to send its winner into orbit were also being reviewed, he said.

“There can be no short trips,” Yuri Koptev, head of Rosaviakosmos, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

Both tourists have traveled to the ISS on visiting missions, used primarily to deliver scientific equipment and to replace the station’s Soyuz “lifeboat.”

But Koptev said the Soyuz workhorse would now travel to the ISS every six months to replace its live-in crew as well as the “lifeboat” docked onto the station, but would do nothing else.

But both Netherlands-based Mir-Corp and U.S. Space Adventures said space tourism would not be scrapped altogether.

“As long as our Russian colleagues remain committed, this is not the end of space tourism,” said Mir-Corp head Jeff Manber.

“But we all understand that right now the Soyuzes have to be used to keep the ISS going.”

Space Adventures, which brokered space shots for Tito and Shuttleworth, said it would develop other space activities.

“Flights to the ISS are not all that space tourism is about,” said Sergei Kotenko, the firm’s Russian representative.

“This will hamper space tourism for a while, but people will eventually fly anyway, you cannot hold back progress.”