The decision is said to rest in the hands of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and NASA.
In 2001, NASA attempted to prevent Dennis Tito from becoming the first self-funded citizen space explorer to visit the International Space Station. At the time, NASA’s actions were based on highly charged politics and disagreements between Roscosmos and NASA, as well as apparent personal animosity on the part of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. United States Senator (and former Mercury astronaut) John Glenn said the time had not yet come for the United States government to “permit more people in space.” (He did not bother to mention how he had used his political office to snag a free ride for himself on the Space Shuttle.) Dan Goldin even questioned Tito’s patriotism.
Fortunately, that ugly atmosphere is long past. NASA is generally supportive of citizen space exploration these days, and there is no political opposition to Brightman’s trip. Rather, it is operational considerations that may interfere.
Soyuz taxi flights normally visit the International Space Station for a period of about eight days. NASA and Roscosmos are considering extending a 2015 visit to one month, however. If that happens, Brightman would have to give up her seat to a scientific researcher, who would perform some short-term experiments aboard the space station.
Roscosmos manned space flight director Alexei Krasnov had previously indicated that Russia might consider carrying two paying customers on the 2015 taxi flight. So, it would be theoretically possible for Russia to fly Brightman and the researcher. It’s unknown whether Brightman would want to spend that long aboard the space station, however, and pricing policy to longer-duration stays have not been worked out.
This situation points to multiple deficiencies in the current system for citizen space explorers. A more flexible (and, preferably, much cheaper) means of Earth-to-orbit transportation is needed. Beyond that, however, there is a need for an on-orbit destination, such as Bigelow’s Space Station Alpha, which is not subject to the conflicting requirements of ISS. This is especially true since the expected start of SpaceX crew taxi service to the International Space Station has been pushed back to 2017, due to the failure of Congress to provide full funding, and may slip further due to the NASA budget sequester. (The plan of record calls for ISS to continue operating until 2020, although that date may be extended again. The station was originally scheduled to be deorbited in 2016. It can, no doubt, be operated safely for some time beyond 2020, but Boeing engineers have warned there are limits to how long the lifetime of ISS modules can be stretched.)
In the near term, it’s possible that some individuals who can afford orbital missions will choose to forgo them for suborbital flights which will be available on much more convenient schedules. Others will want to do both. (Brightman has purchased a ticket for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two as well as a ride on Soyuz. It will be interesting to see which she flies on first.) In the mid-term, we expect that both orbital and suborbital exploration will grow, but suborbital will grow faster due to the marked price advantage.
If Brightman’s ISS trip gets delayed, it’s conceivable she could end up exchanging her ticket for a trip to Bigelow’s Alpha station, which Bigelow expects to begin launching in 2015. If that happens, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, who visited ISS in 2009, might go down in history as the last citizen space explorer to visit that station.
One thing seems clear: ISS is unlikely to evolve into “Alpha Town,” as Rick Tumlinson predicted in 1997. Bigelow’s Alpha station is much more likely to evolve into Alpha Town than ISS is.