Russia ready to “fight” for the supremacy of space tourism
After a decade-long hiatus, Russia is relaunching an ambitious bid to dominate the burgeoning global space tourism industry, jostling with zealous billionaires, the United States and rising China.
Russia flaunted its comeback this month by sending two cosmic adventurers – Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant – to the International Space Station (ISS) on its first tourist launch in 12 years.
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Building on this success, Firebrand space chief Dmitry Rogozin spoke about Russia’s next steps towards supremacy: a special module at the ISS for Russian visitors, spacewalks outside from the station and, later, trips around the moon.
“We will not give the Americans this slot. We are ready to fight for it,” he told reporters at a press conference as Maezawa headed to the ISS on a 12-day mission. .
Yet Russia’s path to industry dominance is fraught with new hurdles that have emerged since it last emerged ten years ago.
At the time, the Russian space agency Roscosmos had a monopoly on sending curious people into space. That changed when U.S. agency NASA pulled its own astronaut shuttle back in 2011 and reclaimed all of the ISS seats Roscosmos had to offer for the next decade.
Then, last year, billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX burst onto the scene with its first successful ISS mission and NASA jettisoned Roscosmos.
At a reported $ 90 million per seat, it was a financial blow to the cash-strapped Russian space agency, simultaneously hit by budget cuts and corruption scandals.
Analysts say Roscosmos has no choice but to look to tourism to fill the gap. “The Russian space industry depends on consistent orders for these launches,” industry analyst Vitaly Yegorov told AFP.
The price of a seat – estimated at between $ 50 million and $ 60 million – covers the cost of building the three-person Soyuz spacecraft to transport the crew, he said, while a second traveler makes a profit . But space tourism isn’t just about money, officials say.
“It’s a national prestige. Young people are interested in human spaceflight. It’s the future, after all,” said Dmitry Loskutov, director of Glavkosmos, a Roscosmos subsidiary responsible for commercial projects, including tourism.
Russia, China and the United States are the only countries capable of manned flight, but a multitude of newcomers are entering the scene and forcing Russia to step up its game, SpaceX among them.
Musk has yet to take any tourists to the ISS, but this year his Inspiration4 brought an all-civilian crew into Earth orbit for a three-day mission.
Amazon Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are also eager to be cut. Their two spacecraft made their maiden voyage this year, remaining weightless for several minutes before returning to Earth.
But Andrei Ionin of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics says you just can’t compare billionaires’ brief low-orbit flights to a multi-day mission to the ISS. “It’s like comparing Ferrari and the Renault market,” he said.
Loskutov echoed this point, saying that travel is more of the “entertainment industry” than space travel.
Still, Yegorov said, “the competition is increasing,” especially from SpaceX. Russia has taken note of this. He wants to expand his offerings, including a spacewalk on an upcoming tourism mission, Loskutov said.
Moscow also unveiled plans for its own orbital station with the ISS which is expected to retire within the next decade and Rogozin said there may be a “separate tourist module” on board.
He raised the possibility of new routes, for example by following the path of the first human in space, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Rogozin also said that after 2030, Roscosmos hopes to offer a trip around the moon.
But that timeline lags far behind SpaceX’s ambitions – it has announced a mission to take eight people around the moon as early as 2023. Another complication Roscosmos faces in the industry is to assess and meet demand.
On the one hand, Soyuz spacecraft are expensive and a mission takes at least two years to organize.
Loskutov said Russia has pre-ordered a rocket for the next launch, and Rogozin has asked his agency to increase production of Soyuz.
Real demand – not just interest – is also difficult to assess. Applicants should be prepared to shell out, meet health requirements, and commit to months of training and a period of re-education after returning to Earth. “In my opinion, it isn’t crowded – but you don’t need a lot anyway,” Ionin said.
At least for now, he said, Russia is ahead thanks to the Soyuz designed and tested by the Soviets. “For the next five to ten years there is no threat to Roscosmos’ business,” Ionin added.