This morning, the Russian spacecraft Soyuz successfully docked with the International Space Station, and space tourist Richard Garriott was welcomed as part of the 18th space station crew. Garriott, who reportedly paid $30 million for a 10-day stay at the outpost, is the son of a former NASA astronaut and longed to follow in his father’s footsteps, but was prevented from training as an astronaut because of his poor eyesight. After making his fortune as a video game designer he brokered passage to orbit through the company Space Adventures, which arranges trips with Russia’s space agency.
Garriott’s father, Owen, applauded as he watched the docking from Russian Mission Control outside Moscow. “I’m pleased everything is going smoothly. It’s looking great and they are starting off on a fascinating new adventure…. There was not a lot of nervousness today or during the launch. We were confident it would go well,” he said [AP]. At the space station Garriott met Russian cosmonaut Yuri Volkov, who was the first man to follow his father into space.
NASA officials are quietly considering keeping the three remaining space shuttles in service past their planned retirement in 2010. According to an internal email obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin asked his team to study the possibility of keeping the shuttles flying, in what is being seen as a surprising reversal. Griffin has steadfastly opposed extending the shuttle era beyond its 2010 retirement date, arguing it could kill astronauts and cripple the agency’s fledgling Constellation program, a system of new rockets and capsules meant to replace the shuttle. But geopolitics and political pressure are undermining his position [Orlando Sentinel].
Under the current official plan, NASA will not be able to send astronauts into space between the shuttles’ retirement in 2010 and the launch of the new Orion crew capsule in 2015. NASA has planned to purchase seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecrafts to send astronauts to the International Space Station during those five years, but Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia has chilled relations between Russia and the United States, and may imperil the Soyuz agreement.
In a strange side effect of Russia’s invasion of Georgia this weekend, the U.S. may lose access to Russia’s Soyuz spacecrafts that were expected to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station after the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2010. Florida Senator Bill Nelson says that because of Russia’s new aggression, the U.S. Congress may refuse to pass an exemption required to let NASA buy services from Russia.
Under a law known as the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, the United States is banned from buying space technology from Russia unless the president determines Russia is taking steps to prevent the proliferation of nuclear and missile technology to Iran. Congress waived the ban in 2005, allowing NASA to enter into a $719 million contract with the Russians for use of the Soyuz through 2011 [CNN]. But an extension of the waiver needs to be passed to guarantee access to the Space Station after 2011.
In a daring maneuver, Russian astronauts will take a six-hour walk outside the International Space Station today to remove an explosive bolt from their Soyuz spacecraft. Russian scientists believe the bolt failed to perform properly on the craft’s last two entries into the Earth’s atmosphere, and want it removed to prevent endangering astronauts on the craft’s next trip home later this year.
To get to the bolt, astronauts will ride a hand-powered crane from the Space Station to the docked Soyuz, and will then use a knife for the first time during a spacewalk to cut away insulation…. [Cosmonaut Sergei Volkov will then] detach an electrical connector before unscrewing the bolt. He will remove the explosive bolt — which has power roughly equivalent to a large M-80 firecracker — and place it inside a stainless steel case that should hold against any unlikely firing of the bolt [SPACE.com].
Against the classic backdrop of New York City’s Explorers Club, a brash entrepreneurial space company held a press conference today to announce its latest customers, who have pledged to pay exorbitant prices to take pleasure cruises to space. In a sign that the space tourism market is taking off, the company’s executives also declared that business is so strong that they’re leasing more seats from their partner, the Russian space agency.
The company, Space Adventures, is playing up the scientific and educational possibilities of each mission, seemingly trying to dispel the notion that astronomically wealthy folks are spending bushels of money just to take pretty pictures of Earth from the International Space Station.