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U.S., Russia embroiled in space tourist flap

Dennis Tito  

(CNN) -- A team of cosmonauts resumed training Tuesday in Houston for a mission to the international space station, despite a heated disagreement between Moscow and Washington over whether a prospective space tourist will fly with them.

The Russian Aviation and Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) insists that Dennis Tito will accompany two cosmonauts on a Soyuz spacecraft mission to space station Alpha in April.

The 60-year-old California investment banker paid $20 million for the weeklong flight.

NASA remains adamant that Tito lacks the skills and the language ability to travel safely to the fledgling orbiting outpost, which has been occupied since November.

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Along with a pair of backups, the two primary mission cosmonauts walked out of the Johnson Space Center on Monday after NASA managers barred Tito from participating in the training on U.S. systems.

The incident aggravated an already tenuous partnership between the United States and Russia, the main builders of the station. NASA has criticized Rosaviakosmos for numerous financial and technical setbacks that have delayed construction on the $100 billion project.

Tito has already spent six months at a cosmonaut training center near Moscow, learning to use Russian space station equipment. He maintains he is ready to fly.

"It just doesn't come by writing a check, getting a ticket and stepping on an airplane. It is a lot of work," he said.

'An emotional outburst'

A Rosaviakosmos spokesman told the Interfax News Agency that Russia intends to honor its contract with Tito, a former NASA engineer who earned millions in managing investment funds.

NASA countered that the nonprofessional crew member would require constant supervision, lacks emergency training, lacks sufficient Russian skills, and would "add a significant burden to the (mission) and detract from the overall safety of the international space station," the agency said in a statement.

Space station Alpha  

During a series of high-level meetings in recent weeks, Russian space officials agreed to negotiate a series of guidelines with NASA and other station partners to determine who can visit Alpha.

Many nations involved in the Alpha project think Tito should not go to the orbiting outpost, NASA managers told reporters on Tuesday.

Yet due to contractual arrangements, there could be little to prevent Moscow from sending him there, some U.S. space officials have conceded.

Tito initially bought a ticket to visit the now doomed Russian space station Mir. When that deal unraveled, he made a similar arrangement to visit Alpha on a routine Soyuz mission.

A wedge to drive apart

"This is about Dennis Tito, not the greater issue of space tourism," said NASA astronaut and manager Bill Readdy. " We are not going to let him be the wedge to drive us apart."

The Monday incident occurred as the crew of the Soyuz mission arrived at Johnson Space Center for five days of training on U.S. systems on Alpha.

Tito and four cosmonauts arrived at the visitor center at the edge of NASA's fenced campus to obtain their security badges.

When NASA space station manager Bob Cabana said the agency had decided that it would not train Tito for this mission, the visitors quickly departed and returned to their hotels.

Moscow has promised to send a Soyuz spacecraft to Alpha every six months. The Russian space agency is interested in routinely selling one of the three Soyuz seats to wealthy adventurers.

Besides shuttling crews and supplies into orbit, the three-seat Soyuz ships serve as emergency lifeboats while docked to Alpha.

Sixteen nations are building Alpha, the most expensive engineering undertaking ever. Already the largest spacecraft in orbit, the sprawling modular complex will eventually spread over almost an acre.

Its second resident crew, composed of one Russian and two Americans, began a four-month stay this week.

CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien and writer Richard Stenger contributed to this report.

Cosmonauts walk after NASA rebuffs space tourist
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Miles O'Brien: Mir's death plunge
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Tourists head for Mir re-entry zone
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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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