ISS Astronauts, Russian Officials Celebrate Cosmonautics Day

ISS Astronauts, Russian Officials Celebrate Cosmonautics Day
International Space Station Expeditio 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin (bottom right) waves to Russian dignitaries on Earth during Cosmonautics Day on April 12, 2007. Also aboard the ISS with him are: (Back row from left) Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin and Expedition 14 flight engineer Sunita Williams. Bottom row (from left): Expedition 15 flight engineer Oleg Kotov, American space tourist Charles Simonyi, Yurchikhin. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

MOSCOW - Russians celebrated the Day of Space Exploration,or Cosmonautics Day, on Thursday with cosmonauts aboard the International SpaceStation (ISS) treating themselves to a French cuisine dinner and unnamedgovernors considering whether to buy a $25 million ticket to this scientificoutpost more than 186 miles (300 kilometers)above the Earth.

Thursday is a working day for the station's U.S.-Russiancrew, including newly arrived American space tourist CharlesSimonyi and cosmonauts FyodorYurchikhin and Oleg Kotov. But after their working shift ends, the crew,which includes U.S. astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegriaand Sunita "Suni" Williamsas well as Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, willsample French cuisine meals brought by Simonyi, the fifth space tourist, to thestation earlier this week, ITAR-TASS reported.

"April 12is a big celebration both in Russia for Cosmonautics Day celebrating theanniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin as first man in space and also for usthe launch of the first space shuttle in 1981," Lopez-Alegriatold CNN late Wednesday. "So we're going to combine everything into kindof a little fiesta up here and we're going to have that special meal for thatoccasion."

NASAofficials said the catered gourmet dinner is set for the end of the spacestation crew's day, or about 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT) Friday.

Ahead of the dinner the crew had a linkup with the MissionControl Center in Korolev to talk to First DeputyPrime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Ivanovused the opportunity to promise that Russia would "beef up" itssegment of the station, which is a joint project of more thana dozen of nations. He also inquired how the crew was feeling to hear Simonyirespond in Russian that he is "feelingpleasant."

Simonyi is to return to Earth along with on with Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin on board of aSoyuz TMA-9 spacecraft on April 20. He is documenting his spaceflight at hisweb site:

Yurchikhin and Kotov are scheduled for a six-month missionaboard the ISS while Williams is to remain at the station until summer, whenNASA's space shuttle Endeavour will arrive, according to NASA's web site.During the video-link Ivanov jokingly told theYurchikhin and Kotov "to cherish Suni"Williams.

"Thank you, it is very important to us to be celebrating Cosmonautics Day here," Yurchikhin told Russian space officials and veteran cosmonauts, who told the crew that flying in space on April 12 is good luck.

The Virginia-based firm Space Adventures said Wednesday thatit has secured ISS-bound seats for private spaceflyersin 2008 and 2009, though some Russian news reports have set the next spacetourist flight for 2009. Director of Russia's Federal Space Agency Anatoly Perminov told Interfax onWednesday that several governors have displayed interest in going for a flightto ISS, which typically lasts 10 days and costs somewhere between $20 millionand $25 million. "I am not going to name names for now, let's see how itgoes," the space chief said.

It would take Russian governors' decades, if not centuriesto accumulate $25 million dollars if they set aside money only from theirofficial wages and it remains unclear how any of them could buy a $20 millionticket to space without raising questions on how they can afford such a trip.Several governors have been investigated for corruption recently, includingprobes into financing of their trips to different locations.

While touting possibility of publicly servants becomingspace tourists in a country where average monthly wage doesn't exceed $500 Perminov also lamented the fact that none of Russia's richmen, including 53 individuals on the 2007 Forbes list of billionaires, have sofar expressed interest. "Perhaps, they are afraid of leaving theirfortunes unattended," the space chief said.

Eric Anderson, president and chief executive of U.S.-basedSpace Adventures, told Interfax on Thursdaythat he hopes a Russian space tourist will fly to ISS eventually. Anderson,whose company markets rides on Russian-made Soyuz TMA craft to ISS among otherthings, said the name of the sixth space tourist would be revealed in the nextfew months.

Down, on the Earth, flowers were laid across Russia atmonuments dedicated to the flight of Yuri Gagarin to space 46 years ago. Top dogs used the occasion to visit space facilities and space-relatedlocations. State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov went to Kaluga, the hometown of Russian rocket science father Konstantin Tsiolkovsky,  while First Deputy Ivanovwent to the Mission Control Center and then to Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut TrainingCenter in the Star City, Moscow region. Staff Writer Tariq Malik contributed to this reportfrom New York City.

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