MOSCOW - Russians celebrated the Day of Space Exploration, or Cosmonautics Day, on Thursday with cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) treating themselves to a French cuisine dinner and unnamed governors considering whether to buy a $25 million ticket to this scientific outpost more than 186 miles (300 kilometers) above the Earth.
Thursday is a working day for the station's U.S.-Russian crew, including newly arrived American space tourist Charles Simonyi and cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov. But after their working shift ends, the crew, which includes U.S. astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria and Sunita "Suni" Williams as well as Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, will sample French cuisine meals brought by Simonyi, the fifth space tourist, to the station earlier this week, ITAR-TASS reported.
"April 12 is a big celebration both in Russia for Cosmonautics Day celebrating the anniversary of the launch of Yuri Gagarin as first man in space and also for us the launch of the first space shuttle in 1981," Lopez-Alegria told CNN late Wednesday. "So we're going to combine everything into kind of a little fiesta up here and we're going to have that special meal for that occasion."
NASA officials said the catered gourmet dinner is set for the end of the space station crew's day, or about 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT) Friday.
Ahead of the dinner the crew had a linkup with the Mission Control Center in Korolev to talk to First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Ivanov used the opportunity to promise that Russia would "beef up" its segment of the station, which is a joint project of more than a dozen of nations. He also inquired how the crew was feeling to hear Simonyi respond in Russian that he is "feeling pleasant."
Simonyi is to return to Earth along with on with Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin on board of a Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft on April 20. He is documenting his spaceflight at his web site: www.charlesinspace.com.
Yurchikhin and Kotov are scheduled for a six-month mission aboard the ISS while Williams is to remain at the station until summer, when NASA's space shuttle Endeavour will arrive, according to NASA's web site. During the video-link Ivanov jokingly told the Yurchikhin 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 that it has secured ISS-bound seats for private spaceflyers in 2008 and 2009, though some Russian news reports have set the next space tourist flight for 2009. Director of Russia's Federal Space Agency Anatoly Perminov told Interfax on Wednesday that several governors have displayed interest in going for a flight to ISS, which typically lasts 10 days and costs somewhere between $20 million and $25 million. "I am not going to name names for now, let's see how it goes," the space chief said.
It would take Russian governors' decades, if not centuries to accumulate $25 million dollars if they set aside money only from their official wages and it remains unclear how any of them could buy a $20 million ticket to space without raising questions on how they can afford such a trip. Several governors have been investigated for corruption recently, including probes into financing of their trips to different locations.
While touting possibility of publicly servants becoming space tourists in a country where average monthly wage doesn't exceed $500 Perminov also lamented the fact that none of Russia's rich men, including 53 individuals on the 2007 Forbes list of billionaires, have so far expressed interest. "Perhaps, they are afraid of leaving their fortunes unattended," the space chief said.
Eric Anderson, president and chief executive of U.S.-based Space Adventures, told Interfax on Thursday that 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 other things, said the name of the sixth space tourist would be revealed in the next few months.
Down, on the Earth, flowers were laid across Russia at monuments dedicated to the flight of Yuri Gagarin to space 46 years ago. Top dogs used the occasion to visit space facilities and space-related locations. State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov went to Kaluga, the home town of Russian rocket science father Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, while First Deputy Ivanov went to the Mission Control Center and then to Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in the Star City, Moscow region.
SPACE.com Staff Writer Tariq Malik contributed to this report from New York City.
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