Originally created 02/04/03

Russian officials say paid visits to space station will be suspended



MOSCOW -- Russia will stop sending crews and paying tourists on short visits to the international space station for an unspecified period of time in the wake of the shuttle Columbia disaster, space officials said Monday.

In the past, U.S. shuttles have ferried long-term crews to the 16-nation space station, while Russian rockets have carried visiting crews in fresh Soyuz craft that they leave behind as emergency escape vehicles.

But with the shuttle program grounded during the investigation into Saturday's disaster, the head of Russia's manned space program said the shorter missions also must be put on hold, the Interfax news agency reported.

"Now the delivery of the main crew of the international space station will be carried on manned Soyuz TMA ships," Interfax quoted Mikhail Sinelshchikov as saying. "It is necessary to do without short-term expeditions."

Officials have said Russia has only two Soyuz capsules that are ready for flight. A spokesman for the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos, Sergei Gorbunov said Sunday that Russia would have to consider whether to use one to send a short-term crew to the station in April, as planned.

On Monday, Gorbunov said Russia would have to suspend trips to the station by paying tourists for the time being, but that it intends to resume the lucrative practice in the future, Interfax reported. Two men have paid a reported $20 million each to fly to the space station aboard Russian rockets.

"For Russia this is not bad money at all, and we do not by any means intend to do without flights by commercial tourists," Interfax quoted Gorbunov as saying. "However, now, of course, all commercial launches are postponed for an unspecified time."

He said their resumption would depend on the future of U.S. shuttle flights, and that they might be put off for one or two years.

"The Americans need to determine what it is they want. So far from their side there have been no official appeals to Russia," Gorbunov said. "Negotiations are taking place only on the level of technical specialists of the two countries."

The shuttle Columbia broke apart Saturday above Texas, in the last 16 minutes of a 16-day mission, as the spaceship re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Seven astronauts perished on board.