ZHUKOVSKY, Russia (Reuters) - A hotel in orbit, lunar sightseeing flights and luxury rides into the cosmos -- all are part of Russia’s vision to ensure it is not left behind in the growing space tourism industry.
Russian firms unveiled their plans at the country’s premiere air show this week at Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, saying the race was on to build a new craft to take people into space following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle in April.
RKK Energia unveiled plans for a replacement shuttle and Orbital Technologies said it hoped to build an orbiting hotel with room for seven guests by 2016. Other plans include flying tourists to the dark side of the moon and, by 2030, to Mars.
“Space tourism is a real and fast-growing business,” said Sergei Kostenko, head of Russian firm Orbital Technologies, said at the MAKS air show. “Whoever builds the first new spaceship now will reap big dividends.”
Although Russia currently holds a monopoly on rides to space aboard its Soviet-designed Soyuz, it starts at a disadvantage.
Foreign experts say they doubt Russian firms can achieve their ambitious goals because they lack funding and even Russian officials said it would be hard to rival U.S. private sector firms now competing for contracts with NASA.
Funding for the U.S. space program is much higher and NASA is expected to forge ahead with building a new generation of craft capable of traveling into deep space, with flights into low Earth orbit outsourced to private firms.
“The U.S. has more possibilities than us right now,” said Alexander Derechin, deputy chief designer for Russia’s partly state-owned space contractor RKK Energia.
He said the United States had made a “very wise decision” in planning a state-funded spaceship for deep-space flight and that Russia faced tough competition from companies such as Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin as well as start-up firms.
“But we must make a state-funded spaceship, though in such a way that it is also commercially competitive. It is a very difficult task,” Derechin said.
A decade after it flew the first U.S. millionaire to space in 2001, Energia plans a six-person shuttle which it said would offer a softer landing for the super-rich than its 40-year-old Soyuz craft. It said it hoped it would be operating by 2015.
“People paying for the most expensive ticket in the world must be comfortable, not scared,” said Vladimir Pirozhkov, who designed the model of the shuttle on show this week.
“This is just a glance at the future, but it is the ultimate transportation dream. It should be desirable.”
Russia cannot sell tourist seats until 2013. It is carrying European and U.S. astronauts -- for more than $50 million a ride -- on its single-use Soyuz capsule, the only way of getting to the International Space Station since the U.S. shuttle was retired.
Russian officials say at least one of four U.S. companies at the forefront of the commercial space industry could develop space taxis by 2016 to take astronauts into low Earth orbit, up to an altitude of about 2,000 km (1,250 miles).
“We don’t want to come late to the market,” Derechin said.
Orbital Technologies said the planned new spacecraft would be able to take VIP clients to a hotel it plans to build in orbit 217 miles above Earth, catering for guests paying about $1 million for a five-day stay.
Orbital Technologies’ Kostenko said the space hotel would be more comfortable than the space station, but did not promise luxury -- vacationers would still have to eat space food, take sponge baths and use vacuum toilets because of weightlessness.
Foreign space officials and experts said they doubted Russian firms would be able to replace the 40-year-old Soyuz, much less launch a space platform, as quickly as planned.
Houston-based space consultant James Oberg said part of the publicity blitz at MAKS was “fantasy” aimed at helping Russian space agency Roskomos find foreign funding for new boosters, manned spacecraft and nuclear-powered Mars engines.
Roskomos’ new head, Vladimir Popovkin, said at the air show the agency could no longer afford to spend nearly 50 percent of its budget on manned flights.
Oberg said Russia risked quickly losing its monopoly on transportation into space, adding: “This question is really worrying the more thoughtful Russian space strategists.”
Russia “depends on an increasingly aging workforce saddled with mostly obsolete ground equipment and a few basic ‘old reliable’ designs with little prospects for upgrade or improved economy,” he said.
Editing by Timothy Heritage