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NASA partners: Space tourist should be grounded

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Dennis Tito  

(CNN) -- Major contributors in the international space station project joined the United States Tuesday in opposing the upcoming flight of an aspiring space tourist.

California financier Dennis Tito, 60, paid $20 million for a roundtrip ticket to the orbiting outpost. A former NASA rocket engineer, Tito plans to fly with two Russian cosmonauts in a Soyuz spacecraft to the space station at the end of the month.

Representatives of nations building the station were to discuss the Tito standoff via a teleconference Tuesday, but the meeting was abruptly cancelled, according to U.S. and Russian space agency officials.

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In the United States, top brass from the European and Canadian space agencies urged Russia to postpone Tito's trip because the fledgling space station Alpha is still under construction.

"As a tourist, you would not go to a hotel still under construction," Ernst Messerschmid, head of the European Space Agency's Astronaut Center, told reporters.

Messerschmid said Tito's lack of training could endanger himself and the Soyuz and Alpha crews. A veteran astronaut from Germany, Messerschmid knows about the dangers of space travel.

He flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1985, the year before it exploded in a disaster that claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, a U.S. elementary school teacher who won a seat on the flight.

Alain Dubeau, manager of the Canadian Space Station program, agreed that Tito should stay on the ground when the Soyuz lifts off in late April.

"Our concern is the timing. We want to ensure that Tito does not get in the way of the crew of the space station," he said.

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The space station's new Canadian-built robot arm is folded and packed into a crate for delivery to Alpha  

Canada is sending a $1 billion robotic "inchworm" arm to Alpha on the shuttle Endeavour, which is scheduled to launch Thursday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA maintains its opposition to Tito's flight, but is quietly making plans should the amateur astronaut arrive at Alpha.

"We're looking at it like we would bring any visitor to the station. We're looking at basic safety procedures, considering allowing extra time for safety briefings," said Bill Gerstenmaier, deputy manager of NASA's space station program.

"We're looking at the practical day-to-day things so that if he flies we can fly him in a safe manner," he said.

Whether NASA, the main partner in the multibillion-dollar project, will deny Tito access to U.S. sections of the modular complex remains undecided, he said. Despite such preparations, whether Tito would fly at all was still in the air, Gerstenmaier added quickly.

"I'm giving the impression it's a done deal, but it's still in discussions at headquarters."

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The space shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday  

Representatives of NASA and other space station partners including Russia were to meet Tuesday to discuss the impasse, but the teleconference was abruptly moved to Friday, the Russian space agency said.

The financially struggling Russian space agency, which controls the passenger roster of Soyuz flights to Alpha, has shown little inclination to cancel the tourist flight.

Russia agreed to send a fresh Soyuz to the station every six months. The spacecraft serve as an emergency lifeboat for the three residents of the station.

After the two cosmonauts and presumably Tito deliver a new Soyuz in two weeks, they will return to Earth in an old one already docked to the station.



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