Mir Space Station's New Role: Vroom With a View

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OK, so the air conditioning's a little iffy, and you could wait light-years for room service, but the location is unbeatable. A Russian spacecraft blasted off Tuesday carrying two cosmonauts whose job is to repair an air leak aboard the abandoned Mir orbiter in preparation for its reincarnation as a galactic hotel. An international consortium led by Washington millionaire Walt Anderson has stepped in to save the stricken space station, buying the rights to its commercial use for $20 million and planning to invest a further $200 million over the next two years in turning Mir into a $20 million-per-head orbiting motel.

But will the project fly? There are doubts about just how many people would be prepared to shell out 20 big ones for a vacation aboard a creaky vessel that has been plagued by air leaks, electrical failures, fires and more. And then there are the economics. "Although these investors would like to make a breakthrough in commercializing manned space travel, it's not clear that the project could generate sufficient revenue to make it viable," says TIME space correspondent Jeff Kluger. "Profitability comes from volume, and there's only one Mir. Right now the profits for the private sector in space still lie predominantly in unmanned space flight."

NASA isn't exactly thrilled by the privatization of Mir, because the project is still consuming valuable manpower and resources from the Russian space program, which is now in partnership with the U.S. to build a bigger orbiting space station. "The Russians are heavily committed to the International Space Station project, and the U.S. doesn't want them diverting scarce resources and manpower into keeping alive an orbiting derelict," says Kluger. "But that won't make much difference to Moscow, because Mir is an enormously emotional issue for Russia — it's the last surviving achievement of their once-great space program." And in its fifteenth year in space, they'd rather see it turned into a millionaires' motel than incinerated over the Pacific.