Dennis Tito cautious about space tourism future

Posted: January 28, 2002

Dennis Tito speaks at the National Air and Space Museum. Photo: Jeff Foust
Despite calling his trip into orbit last year as "the best eight days of my life," Dennis Tito expressed only lukewarm optimism about the prospects of the space tourism industry in a speech last weekend.

Tito, the California businessman who became the first commercial space tourist when he flew on a controversial Soyuz taxi mission to the International Space Station last April, spoke to a sold out auditorium at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, Saturday night about his historic trip.

Tito said that the flight was the realization of a dream that dated back to the beginning of the Space Age, and one that did not leave him disappointed. "My eight days there were the best eight days of my life," he said. He added that if he should hold any spaceflight-related record, it should be "for having the most fun."

How many people will be able to follow in Tito's footsteps is an open question. South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth is slated to be the second commercial space tourist, flying to ISS on a Soyuz taxi flight in late April. Russian officials have also suggested that another tourist may fly on the following taxi flight in early November.

"Two [tourists] a year is a start," said Tito. If there's sufficient demand for additional flights, he added, it may be possible to raise private capital to fund the assembly of additional Soyuz spacecraft or even the development of a small private space station, like MirCorp's proposed Mini Station 1 facility, announced last year. Any upcoming progress will be in Russia, Tito believes, saying that "I don't see anything happening on the American side."

In the longer term, within the next 30 years Tito said he believed it would be possible to get the cost of orbital missions down from the $20 million he paid to a few million. Those lower costs would require the development of a reusable launch vehicle that could lower the cost of space access.

Tito dismissed the belief that there would be much interest in suborbital space tourism, using spacecraft that just crossed the boundary into space and spent a limited time -- minutes, not days -- in weightlessness, at an initial cost of around $100,000 a ticket. "A suborbital flight is what you would call a joyride in my view," he said. "I just don't see how it would be worth it."

While many believed that Tito, founder of investment firm Wilshire Associates and with an estimated worth of $200 million, would use his expertise and assets to invest in space tourism enterprises, Tito said he has no interest in doing so. "I'm in the investment business, back at my company and making up for my absence," he said. "I don't have time to get into the space exploration business."

Tito also expressed skepticism about government-funded efforts to reduce launch costs and promote commercial activities in space. "I'm a capitalist, so I'm not so crazy about government solutions to problems," he said. The best thing NASA could do, he believes, is reinstate the Civilians in Space program, allowing people from a wide range of background to fly in space and share their experiences, building up demand for commercial tourism.

Despite NASA's long-running opposition to his flight, including preventing him from training with his Russian crewmates at the Johnson Space Center, triggering a minor international incident, Tito said he was generally supportive of the space agency. "I have nothing but great pride in NASA," he said. "NASA is doing a good job; let private industry do its job."