As a trio of pioneer astronauts takes up residence at the International Space Station (ISS) this week, the first thing they might want to do is flick on the "No Vacancy" sign.
For the station, an eight-year, $60 billion, 16-nation effort, won’t be hosting paying guests anytime soon – at least not as far as NASA is concerned.
"While we’re building the ISS, this is not the time to do something like that. In the early part of the program there is lot of work to be done and equipment to be installed. It’s not a pleasure cruise," said Brian Welch, a NASA spokesman.
At least one paying tourist may visit space next year all the same, but aboard a different ship. American businessman Dennis Tito is scheduled to make a $20 million trip to the Russian’s Mir this winter, thanks to MirCorp, the company seeking to lease the space station for commercial and tourist use
However, the Russians – short the $200 million it would take to maintain the teenaged Mir through 2001 – may well scuttle that plan by crashing the orbital outpost to Earth.
That would leave Tito, MirCorp and the winner of the upcoming reality-based television program Destination: Mir without a destination.
However, should Mir fall, the Russians may allow tourists to fly to the cooperatively built and owned Enterprise module on the ISS, a joint project of SPACEHAB and RKK Energia, Russia's largest aerospace firm. Enterprise is tentatively scheduled to be launched in 2003.
But such a venture would first have to be cleared with all the international partners involved in the station. A task far more complicated than smaller commercial deals, like say, sewing a beer company-emblazoned patch on a Canadian astronaut’s uniform.
"If a proposal was going to affect life aboard the station and…day-to-day operations and the environment -- which something like [tourists] would do -- all partners would have a say in that," Welch said.
However, NASA will not even consider such a proposal while the ISS is under construction, a task that will take at least until 2006 to complete.
"It’s not what anyone would be able to consider lodging. It’s got a real industrial feel, out there on the frontier," Welch said. "We wouldn’t rule out entertaining notions like that in the future, but right now we’re not interested."