Space tourist set for liftoff

Posted: April 24, 2001

The Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft that will carry Tito and two Russian to the International Space Station is mated with its nose fairing on Tuesday in preparation for Saturday's launch. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Aspiring space tourist Dennis Tito and his two Russian crewmates are at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan today in preparation for launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on Saturday.

Although non-professional astronauts have flown in space before, Tito, 60, is the first person to fly strictly as a tourist, with no job responsibilities, other than to take care of himself during a week-long visit at the International Space Station. The purpose of the flight is to ferry a new Soyuz spacecraft to the station to serve as the crew's emergency escape ship.

Tito's inclusion on the Soyuz crew sparked a heated controversy between Russia, which unilaterally decided to fly Tito in exchange for $20 million, and its international partners in the space station program. NASA tried to convince Russian space program managers to delay or cancel the flight, but in the end conceded Tito limited access to the U.S.-portions of the station.

In exchange, Tito signed a liability release form and agreed to reimburse the space agency for any damages he may cause.

Russian officials pressed a $100,000 life insurance policy on Tito, which is routinely presented to all Russian cosmonauts, according to the Tass news agency.

"This way we are showing that Tito is an equal crewmember," a spokesman said, according to the Tass report.

In the end, Tito's flight may prove costly to the Russians. During a press conference last week NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said the space agency will not consider buying additional Soyuz spacecraft as a way to double the station crew size. NASA's efforts to develop its own seven-person crew return vehicle have been stymied by budget cuts. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft can only hold three crewmembers.

"A lot of water has passed under the bridge," said Goldin.

The flight of Tito is galling to NASA, which is spending billions of dollars to build and operate the outpost.

"Why should a person, just because he's rich, get to fly on the space station? The U.S. taxpayers should be getting more for their money," Goldin said in an interview in November shortly after the first crew arrived at the International Space Station.

At the time, with Tito's original destination, Mir, headed for a spring-time burial at sea, the Russians were beginning to quietly lobby to fly the millionaire to the space station.

Tito , a trim, soft-spoken Californian who founded the successful Wilshire Associates pension investment firm after a brief stint as an engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has tried to step away from the controversy surrounding his flight and just enjoy what he calls "the fulfillment of a life-long dream."

Like any vacationer, he's packed his camera and video camera and also plans to take along opera CDs - he's a member of the Los Angeles opera board -- and a tape recorder, according to Tito spokesman Kim Shepherd, who is in Moscow.

Shepherd will be among a small group of Americans traveling to the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Friday to wish Tito bon voyage. Other well-wishers are expected to include his three children, his ex-wife and two, long-time business colleagues.

While the space station crew has said they would welcome any visitors, NASA is trying to take a low-key approach to the second Russian manned mission to the station. No television coverage is planned of the Soyuz launch on Saturday, which is scheduled to take place about 3:38 a.m. ET. Still undecided is how NASA will handle the Soyuz crew's arrival at the station on Monday, which is scheduled to occur just five hours before shuttle Endeavour lands after its week-long stay at the station.