After a 10-year hiatus, Russia is relaunching an ambitious bid for dominion over the world’s burgeoning space tourism industry, battling with zealous billionaires, the United States and emerging China.
Russia showed off its comeback this month, sending two cosmic adventurers — Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant — to the International Space Station (ISS) for its first tourist launch in 12 years.
Buoyed by the success, Dmitry Rogozin, space chief of the firebrand, spoke of Russia’s next steps towards supremacy: a special module at the ISS for Russian visitors, spacewalks outside the station and – along the line – travel around the moon.
“We will not give this niche to the Americans. We are ready to fight for it,” he told reporters at a news conference as Maezawa fired on the ISS during a 12-day mission.
Still, Russia’s path to industry dominance is littered with new obstacles that have emerged since it was last in the game a decade ago.
At the time, the Russian space agency Roscosmos had a monopoly on sending curious lenders to space.
That changed when the US agency NASA shut down its own astronaut shuttle in 2011 and snatched every seat for the ISS Roscosmos on offer for the next decade.
Then, last year, billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX came on the scene with its first successful ISS mission and NASA dropped Roscosmos.
At a reported $90 million per seat, this was a huge financial blow to the cramped Russian space agency, which was simultaneously hit by budget cuts and corruption scandals.
Analysts say Roscosmos has no choice but to turn to tourism to cover the shortfall.
“The Russian aerospace industry relies on consistent orders for these launches,” industry analyst Vitaly Yegorov told AFP.
The price tag for one seat — estimated at $50-60 million — will cover the cost of building the three-person Soyuz spacecraft to shuttle the crew, he said, while a second traveler makes a profit.
But space tourism isn’t just about the money, officials say.
“It’s national prestige. Young people are getting interested in manned spaceflight. After all, it’s the future,” said Dmitry Loskutov, head of Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Roscosmos responsible for commercial projects, including tourism.
Competition ‘warm up’
Russia, China and the United States are the only countries capable of manned flights, but a slew of newcomers are entering the scene and forcing Russia to step up its game, including SpaceX.
Musk has yet to bring tourists to the ISS, but this year his Inspiration4 put a full civilian crew into Earth orbit on a three-day mission.
Also eager for a cut are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Both spacecraft made their maiden voyages this year, remaining in gravity for several minutes before returning to Earth.
But Andrei Ionin of the Russian Academy of Cosmonauts says you can’t compare the billionaires’ short flight into low orbit with a one-day mission to the ISS.
“It’s like comparing the Ferrari and Renault markets,” he said.
Reiterating the point, Loskutov said the trips were more part of the “entertainment industry” than space travel.
Still, Yegorov said, “competition is heating up,” especially from SpaceX.
Russia has taken note. It wants to expand the offering, including a spacewalk during an upcoming tourism mission, Loskutov said.
Moscow has also unveiled plans for its own orbital station, with the ISS retiring in the next decade, and Rogozin has said there could be a “separate tourist module” on board.
He pointed out the possibility of new routes, for example, the path of the first human in space Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
‘No threat’ to Russia
Rogozin has also said that Roscosmos hoped to offer a trip around the moon after 2030.
But that timeline falls far short of SpaceX’s ambitions — it has announced a mission to get eight people around the moon as early as 2023.
Another complication facing Roscosmos in the sector is assessing and meeting demand.
First, Soyuz spacecraft are expensive and take at least two years to host a mission.
Loskutov said Russia has ordered a missile for the next launch and Rogozin has instructed his agency to ramp up Soyuz production.
Real demand — not just interest rates — is also difficult to estimate.
Candidates must be willing to pay, meet health requirements, and commit to months of training and a rehabilitation period after returning to Earth.
“In my opinion there aren’t many people — but you don’t need many anyway,” Ionin said.
For now, he said, Russia is leading the way thanks to the Soviet-designed and proven Soyuz.
“There is no threat to Roscosmos’ activities for the next five to ten years,” Ionin added.
(This story was not edited by DailyExpertNews staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)