Buy me to the moon

Space vacation costs $20 million

Tito smiles as his crewmates help him aboard the space station.
Tito smiles as his crewmates help him aboard the space station.

Have you ever thought about your dream vacation?

Perhaps it’s a trip to Hawaii. Or maybe you’d prefer a visit to the pyramids. If you were really rich you might even tour the world, from pole to pole and everything in between. But did you ever think there was a way to spend a week that would be literally out of this world?

Dennis Tito did just that. For years, the California millionaire had dreamed of looking at Earth from orbit. Last month, for a reported price of U.S. $20 million, he got that chance, becoming the first so-called “space tourist” in history.

The controversial vacation was made possible courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. In exchange for the money Tito was able to spend eight days in space. NASA, the U.S. space agency, had previously declined Tito’s proposition of cash in return for a week at the International Space Station (ISS). He then approached the Russians, who agreed to the deal.

On April 28, Tito was launched into space from Kazakhstan. Ostensibly helping the Russian cosmonauts to complete their mission replacing an emergency spacecraft, he was greeted with wary smiles. Television images of Tito playing with a beach ball were quickly broadcast on major networks around the world.

“I love space,” Tito exclaimed, less than an hour after docking with the two cosmonauts accompanying him. “It was a great trip here.”

From the start, NASA had publicly protested the idea of allowing a tourist on the space station. They have even tried to block Tito from reaching his goal. They didn’t cooperate with him, and even tried to convince the Russian Space Agency to delay his departure indefinitely. At a press conference following his return to Earth, Tito said NASA had always planned for a potential commercial component to the ISS. He was aggravated by their objections, claiming “all we did was come along and push up the timetable maybe half a dozen years.” Tito told reporters he had no regrets. “Change is sometimes difficult,” he said. “I don’t feel bad about it at all.”

These comments came after NASA chief Daniel Goldin criticized Tito for working with the Russians. However, Goldin did have praise for another aspiring space tourist: Titanic director James Cameron. Goldin described Cameron as an “American patriot” for talking directly with NASA. He felt the Canadian-born director had a more legitimate motive for a space vacation.

“He’s got different goals...he wants to capture imagery that can excite the masses about space exploration,” said Rae Sanchini, president of Cameron’s production company.

NASA was not the only body to express discontent in the weeks leading up to Tito’s landmark trip. The space agencies of Canada, Japan and Europe all objected to the flight, saying Tito had not been adequately trained and posed a safety risk to the other astronauts.

These naysayers might have had a point. Astronauts usually train for months or even years before going into space and they must be in impeccable physical shape. Tito, 60, underwent some training prior to lift-off, but no one is really sure how extensive it was. Goldin may have been looking out for Tito’s best interests when he said the ISS—still in early stages of development—wasn’t ready to deal with visitors.

Although Tito was “space-sick”—a form of motion sickness which affects about half of all first time space travelers—he appeared to recover shortly after reaching the space station.

“I don’t know about this adaptation that they talk about. I’m already adapted,” he said shortly after arriving. He moved a little more stiffly than his more seasoned colleagues, but the cosmonauts said he didn’t cause any trouble.

Mission commander Talgat Musabayev said, “I would not say there were no problems...[for example he] had problems getting back into his flight suit before leaving the station. But such minor things may happen to any rookie cosmonaut.”

NASA’s Task Force on International Space Station Operation Readiness was asked to provide a safety assessment for Tito’s flight. Suggestions were made to better accommodate the safety considerations of putting a civilian in orbit, and passed on to the Russian space agency before liftoff.

NASA stressed the fact that they had granted an exemption to normal procedure, meaning they won’t allow the rules to be bent anytime soon. Goldin was very concerned about Tito’s attitude to his own safety.

“The current situation has put an incredible stress on the men and women of NASA,” Goldin said. “They are dedicated to safety and Mr. Tito does not realize the efforts of thousands of people in the United States and Russia that are working to protect his safety and the safety of everyone else, taking extraordinary means.”

The Russians had a different view.

Viktor Blagov, deputy head of flights at Russia’s Mission Control Centre, said it was “far from the truth” that Tito had compromised work on the ISS. “[His] presence...has in no way harmed the work of either the permanent or visiting crew.”

Now that Tito is back on Earth safe and sound, questions about the future of space tourism are being raised. James Cameron obviously seems interested in an extraterrestrial voyage and more actors, tycoons and other wealthy hopefuls are sure to follow suit.

Everyone from NASA to the Russians have admitted that more frequent commercial space travel will one day be a reality. Opinions quickly become divided, however, where time-lines and safety measures are concerned.

One thing is certain regarding space tourism: there’s no going back. The first paid customer has been launched out of the Earth’s atmosphere; it is only a matter of time before others make the journey too.

Famous Space Firsts

March 16, 1926: Robert Goddard launches first liquid fuel rocket. It flew 56m in 2.5 s.

October 4, 1957: Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, is launched.

November 3, 1957: Laika the dog becomes the first animal in space, launched aboard Sputnik II.

April 12, 1961: Vostok I, the first manned spacecraft, is launched with Yuri Gagarin aboard.

June 16, 1963: Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.

March 19, 1964: First spacewalk is made by Aleksei Leonov.

July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 lands on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin become the first people on its surface.

April 23, 1971: original crew arrives aboard the first space station, the Soviet Salyut I.

July 18, 1975: Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft dock in space on the first international cooperative space flight.

April 12, 1981: First Space Shuttle mission. The shuttles can glide to Earth in an airplane-like landing, making them re-usable.

February 20, 1986: First element of Mir Space Station is launched. It was used until spring this year.

April 24, 1990: The Hubble Space Telescope is launched. Three years later, a daring spacewalk repair is made on its primary mirror.

April 28, 2001: Dennis Tito pays $20 million to become first space tourist.

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