NASA considers yearlong space missions
Russia proposes extended stays at space station
By Dave Santucci
CNN Space Producer
(CNN) -- NASA is considering a proposal from its Russian partner to double the length of missions to the International Space Station from six months to one year.
The space station has been continually occupied for the past three-and-half years by eight crews that have stayed for various lengths of time, but never more than seven months.
NASA has tried to limit space stays to about six months because of health concerns. After extended periods in zero gravity, muscles atrophy and bones begin to degenerate.
However, President Bush's proposal of sending astronauts to Mars -- a mission that would keep the crew in space for more than a year -- adds a new dimension to the discussion.
Before NASA moves on any missions to Mars, it needs to study extended space stays, said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of the space station program.
He said the proposal is being considered but would not affect the crew scheduled to arrive on the station in April for a six-month mission.
Gerstenmaier said Bush's Mars mission plan was one factor behind the Russian proposal.
"A lot of their motivation was they listened to the new exploration vision and said this may be a way to gain some new knowledge for an exploration vision," he said.
He also suggested a second motivation: By doubling the length of space station missions, the Russia Space Agency would be able to free up seats on the Soyuz to sell to space tourists.
"I think it does open the Soyuz seat up in the spring. It will give them an opportunity to sell more seats there," Gerstenmaier said.
Russia has already flown two space tourists for a reported $20 million each and has sold another seat for a flight in 2005. But Russia's ability to sell seats on its Soyuz rockets has been significantly reduced since the space shuttle Columbia accident on February 1, 2003.
The space shuttle program has been grounded since the accident, leaving the Russian rocket the only means of transportation to and from the space station.
The cash-strapped Russian Space Agency has repeatedly complained of the financial burden imposed by its being the sole provider of space station flights.
But a U.S. law prohibits NASA from paying Russia for the flights until the United States can certify that Russian aerospace agencies are not helping Iran develop long-range missiles.
The Russians are no strangers to extended space stays. Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world record of 438 consecutive days on board Russian space station MIR in the mid-1990s, and several other Russian cosmonauts have spent over a year in space.
Gerstenmaier said there would be no shortage of willing participants for yearlong missions.
"If we find that we really have a compelling need to go stay for a year and it really fits in the overall scheme of things and it gives us important data to help posture ourselves for exploration, I don't think we'll find a shortage of people willing to go do it," he said.