NASA, Russia Feud Over Space Tourist

In an increasingly tense standoff between NASA and the Russian Space Agency, NASA officials said today its Russian partners had "no right" to make an independent decision to send a paying billionaire to the International Space Station in April.

"This is an international space station that hosts an international crew," Michael Hawes, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the International Space Station, said today during a NASA news conference. "It's not the right of any partner to take unilateral actions that affect the other partners."

The statements of the NASA officials reflected their agency's firm stance against allowing California multimillionaire Dennis Tito to travel with a Russian crew to the International Space Station on April 30. But Russian space officials have been equally firm about permitting the paying space tourist to fly.

A spokesman for Russia's agency told reporters today that "Dennis Tito, whether or not he undergoes the U.S. stage of the training for the flight to the ISS, remains in the crew of the Russian Soyuz space ship which will leave for the space station on April 30."

NASA: Put Him on Next Flight

Tito, a 60-year-old multimillionaire California stock adviser, had planned to accompany Russian cosmonauts on a mission to Russia's Mir space station and has paid Russians $20 million for the privilege.

But now that Mir is scheduled to meet its fiery demise later this week, Russians recently switched Tito's travel plans to include him on a flight to the International Space Station. The mission of the upcoming flight aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket is to replace the international station's "lifeboat" escape vehicle with a new Soyuz rocket. The lifeboat vehicle is replaced every six months to ensure its launch fuel is in fresh condition.

NASA Space Flight deputy assistant administrator William Readdy said today that it would be more realistic to include Tito on the next scheduled Soyuz rocket mission six months from now in October. He added that Russian officials had approached NASA only as recently as December about including Tito in the April flight.

"I can't overemphasize just exactly what it takes to fly in space," said Readdy. "I can't overemphasize the importance of training."

Tito has undergone a nine-month training course in Russia to prepare for a space flight. But Readdy said Tito needs an additional six-eight weeks of training and that the businessman also needs to iron out issues such as liability with NASA. He also expressed concern about a "nonprofessional" crew member interfering with busy work schedules.

"At this stage the operational tempo is very very high and I think the participation of a nonprofessional crew member is a problem," said Readdy.

A 'White Gloves' Crew Member?

Readdy used a Russian term, belaya perchatky or "white gloves" to describe the situation Tito could present on the upcoming flight. The expression refers to a crew member who is not allowed to touch anything, lest he or she interfere with operations.

NASA and the European Space Agency have proposed replacing Tito with German astronaut Thomas Reiter. Reiter has undergone training for Soyuz spacecraft operations during previous missions.

Earlier today the two Russian cosmonauts scheduled to fly to the International Space Station refused to proceed with their training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston when they heard that Tito would not be included in the training. Tito showed up for training in Houston on Monday.

After discussing the issue with Russian space officials, the cosmonauts ended their boycott and resumed training, but a resolution between the two agencies remained far from clear.

Hawes, appearing somewhat deflated by questions over the tense situation between the two space agencies, concluded, "I don't think this is going to be the wedge that drives us all apart."