Astronauts aboard the International Space Station could be a lot less lonely by mid-decade if a Russian company pulls off plans to orbit a privately financed space hotel capable of accommodating up to seven people by 2015-16.
Orbital Technologies chief executive Sergey Kostenko, who has been quoted as saying the project has attracted Russian and US investors, describes the so-called Commercial Space Station as "the world's first commercially available human spaceflight platform" for use by "private citizens, professional crews and corporate researchers conducting scientific programmes".
The project will be implemented in co-operation with state-controlled company RKK Energia and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
The CSS will be serviced by the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, but will also be accessible by US, European or Chinese vehicles operating international-standard docking systems.
© Orbital Technologies
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station could be a lot less lonely
The move puts Orbital into a space race with two US rivals - Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace - which at the Farnborough air show in July announced plans to build a low-Earth orbit commercial space station by 2015.
In contrast to Orbital's all-private concept, the US plans depend on securing government funding for human spaceflight, the future of which is at best uncertain in the current political climate in Washington DC.
In addition to providing a platform for scientific research and space tourism, Orbital sees its CSS as complementary to the ISS in an important respect: safety. Because of the design and its orbital inclination, the CSS could serve as an emergency refuge for the ISS crew.
"There is a possibility for the ISS crew to leave their station for several days. For example, if a required maintenance procedure or a real emergency were to occur, without the return of the ISS crew to Earth, habitants could use the CSS as a safe haven," says Roscosmos manned spaceflight chief Alexey Krasnov.
The CSS project could provide a much-needed boost for the fledgling space tourism industry. Virginia-headquartered Space Adventures, which has organised flights for fare-paying space tourists in the third seat of several Soyuz missions to the ISS, says that while it has no agreements in place with Orbital, it is aware of the CSS project and "we certainly want to work with them".
Space Adventures has sent seven customers into space aboard Soyuz spacecraft, the last being Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, who paid around $40 million for his 12-day trip into orbit in October 2009. When it may send another customer into orbit is uncertain, however. The firm had hoped to buy an all-private Soyuz flight in 2013, for two customers and a cosmonaut pilot, but Roscosmos's Kraznov has said such a mission will be impossible until 2014 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Space Adventures in September signed an agreement that could see fare-paying passengers fill empty seats aboard the capsule Boeing is to develop to ferry astronauts to the ISS. But that capsule, intended to fill the transport gap being left by the retirement next year of the Space Shuttle fleet, will not fly until 2014 at the earliest, depending on government funding.