Space tourism temporarily grounded?

NASA/Bill Ingalls
A Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft carrying Space Station Expedition 18 Commander Michael Fincke, Flight Engineer Yury V. Lonchakov and American Spaceflight Participant Charles Simonyi, lands, Wednesday, April 8, 2009, near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.

Now that billionaire Charles Simonyi has safely returned from his 12-day "vacation" on the International Space Station, space tourism appears to be heading into hybernation.

The window appears to be closing on flights to the space station, as today's Monitor online story from Russia indicates. You can read about it here.

For all the angst, Space Adventures, Ltd., which organizes these orbital gigs, suggests that one more opportunity may open up later this year. During a press briefing last Friday, the outfit's president and CEO, Eric Anderson, said he'd learned from the Russians that a spot may become available on a Soyuz three-seater for Sept. 30's scheduled launch.

The question the Russians are kicking around now, he said, was whether to dedicate that seat to another "space participant," a.k.a tourist, or to fill it with one of its own professional astronauts.

But let's face it. Those opportunities are only available to the very, very, very well-heeled anyway. What can you do if you don't have spare millions to pay, and you're willing to settle for a near-astronaut experience?

You could head off to Russia and at least spend quality time being put through the paces at Russia's cosmonaut training facility. Or, grab a seat on a zero-G airplane to see how you'd handle weightlessness (also available for charter, so maybe for your next company picnic?). Space Adventures still has those sorts of opportunities up for sale.

Meanwhile, other entrants to the space-tourism game are making progress. Late last month, "Eve," the mother ship that will carry Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip 2 to its launch altitude (for a quick up-and-back) crossed another flight-test threshold, extending its speed, duration and altitude compared with its first test flight. In Europe, Project Enterprise aims to have a space plane ready to take five people to the doorstep of space, beginning in 2011.

These opportunities won't be cheap either. This is going to be a rich person's x-treme adventure for some time to come.

Or a rich news organization's. One of my colleagues at an Australian publication has a ticket for one of the first 100 Virgin Galactic flights. Rumor has it the ticket is courtesy of his employer. After all, it would make a great story! Tap, tap: Hear that Front Office?

He'd be in good company. In 1990, the Tokyo Broadcasting System sent one of its reporters to the Russian space station Mir. Not exactly tourism. Maybe the first space business trip?

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