AP: Private ISS Flight Still Requires Consultations, Approvals from Partners

Space Adventure’s plan to fund a private Soyuz tourism flight to the International Space Station still requires consultation with and approval by the United States and other station partners, the Associated Press reports.

“NASA space station manager Kenny Todd said that consultation hasn’t taken place. He said that since NASA is a primary partner in the space station, ‘it certainly wants to have an understanding of how that’s going to happen and what all would be involved’ in the private flight.”

Top among the concerns: that Russia will not be overburdened building Soyuz spacecraft required to transport crews to the orbiting outpost. After two recent hair-raising re-entries, this is not a trivial concern.

Space Adventures’ plan, announced on Wednesday to great fanfare, involves flying a Russian cosmonaut and two paying passengers to the orbital outpost. The annual flights, which would begin in 2011, would be done in addition to the twice-yearly rotation of Soyuz vehicles attached to the station. Space Adventures has been selling the third seat on these rotation flights to billionaires. The extra seats are expected to disappear when the ISS crew size increases from three to six.

Docking vehicles at the space station is a complex operation that involves a great deal of coordination and planning on the ground and in orbit. Once the tourists are aboard, it will require time and attention by the station crew, which usually has a full schedule of experiments and maintenance tasks to perform.

The doubling of the ISS crew size will make orbital operations more complex. Two three-seat Soyuz vehicles will be docked at the facility at all times instead of the single one now stationed on orbit. The Russian-built spacecraft are replaced every six months at the end of their orbital lifespans.

Soyuz will be the only human spacecraft flying to the station once NASA retires the space shuttle in 2010. The shuttle’s replacement, Orion, is not expected to fly with passengers until around 2015. The American orbiter has been shouldering a large part of the burden for supplying the facility. The slack will be made up by a fleet of smaller automated freighters, which will be launched more frequently to support the larger crew.

With Soyuz playing such a pivotal role, NASA and the other station partners will need strict assurances that Russia is up to the task of manufacturing all the vehicles required. The last two Soyuz spacecraft returning from the station have landed off course after hair-raising re-entries in which the descent module failed to separately cleanly from the rest of the vehicle. This has raised questions about Russian quality control and capabilities as it ramps up spacecraft production.

Russian space chief Alexey B. Krasnov, whose agency will reap millions in revenue from Space Adventures’ charter flights, said he was confident that adding an additional Soyuz flight annually would not cause any problems.

“On the contrary, it shall add flexibility and redundancy to our transportation capabilities,” Krasnov said in a press statement.