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Tourist in Space

May 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Last Saturday, right on schedule, a Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off from Central Asia, taking the world’s first space tourist into orbit for a journey to the international space station. A $20 million round-trip ticket into space was the longtime dream of American financier Dennis Tito. After debates and disappointments, the 60-year-old boarded the Russian spacecraft with two cosmonauts. Then Tito left the planet as his sons watched from the ground.

MIKE TITO: Wow! What an adrenaline rush! I can’t imagine what my father must have felt, because it felt incredible from here.

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, the Soyuz docked at the international space station. Once on board, Tito said he was having the time of his life.

DENNIS TITO: It’s a great trip here. And I don’t know about this adaptation that they talk about; I’m already adapted, so I love space.

RAY SUAREZ: And today, despite some motion sickness, Tito remained enthusiastic about his sojourn in space.

DENNIS TITO: It went well beyond anything that I would have ever dreamed. Living in space is like having a different life, living in a different world. Living in zero G, viewing the earth from above, it is so spectacular, it is so rewarding.

SPOKESMAN: This is Mission Control. You’re looking at a live picture now from the Mir space station looking at…

RAY SUAREZ: Tito first approached the Russians with a multi- million dollar offer to be part of a private venture to keep the Russian Mir spacecraft aloft. When the financially-strapped Russian space agency decided to dismantle Mir, they offered Tito a ride to the international space station instead. But since the space station is a joint venture with the United States and others, NASA had to sign off on Tito’s trip. NASA said Tito didn’t have the experience for such a mission, and that he might distract other crew members from their tasks. Tito defended the deal, saying his trip would help boost support for the international space station.

DENNIS TITO: Some people and in senior management at NASA that might not be that enthusiastic about it, I intend when I get back to help communicate the ISS to the American people.

RAY SUAREZ: Russian flight director Vladimir Solovyov reacted to the American criticism of the deal.

VLADIIR SOLOVYOV ( Translated ): What do they have against us making $20 million that will eventually goes to the development of the international space station, meaning that the deal will ultimately benefit them?

RAY SUAREZ: After weeks of wrangling, NASA conceded and Tito was cleared to go only after he agreed to pay for any damages or injuries he might cause during the trip. On board the space station, NASA said the American tourist had to be escorted to his own country’s section of the craft. He spent most of his time listening to music and taking photographs of Earth.

RAY SUAREZ: And joining me now is Leonard David, senior space writer for the Web site space.com. Well, does Dennis Tito’s interesting vacation break through a barrier, does he bring the day when commercial space travel is common or closer?

LEONARD DAVID: I think that’s exactly what it is; it’s the ultimate pay-per-view ; he’s up there; he’s doing his thing enjoying his time in orbit. No doubt there is sort of a for the people that are advocating space tourism he’s sort of the Neil Armstrong first guy to do this and paid money to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, he’s not the first civilian in space by a long shot. There has been a journalist up there; there’s been a politician — several politicians up there. But he is the first one who paid for the privilege. Why is that different?

LEONARD DAVID: Well, he had the money, that’s the big difference… $20 million is supposedly what he paid. It just the fact that the Russians are actually teaching us a little bit about capitalism is kind of a unique factor here, to me. He’s bought his way, bought a seat, and he’s having the time his life. It sounds like there is others to follow here, I’m sure we’ll hear in the near future other people waiting in line to get that seat.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, if we look at the history transportation, trips get cheaper, the longer we provide a service. Wouldn’t the Russians be interested in making sure that those seats in a space are rare so they can keep charging 20 million bucks?

LEONARD DAVID: One wonders whether we’ll see a bidding war. Some of these people definitely have more than $20 million to spend; Jim Cameron, the film director for Titanic, has been rumored to want to go – there’s some German game show that apparently would like to fly some contestants; there is even talk about "Survivor" III for space and some of the television shows have a lot more than that. So who knows maybe we’ll see a bidding war for that kind of chair.

RAY SUAREZ: As we saw from space, Dennis Tito kept talking about what I kick it was, how he had been adequately prepared to be up there. But, in reality, was this a risky trip for him?

LEONARD DAVID: I don’t — from what you can tell from the cosmonaut training, which is pretty extensive, he went through months of training with the cosmonauts. He went through a significant amount of underwater training for survival training and zero gravity flights, things like there to prepare him for the mission — also simulated flights on the Soyuz as in the simulator as it goes up. He knows what to expect. So he was pretty well trained for his $20 million. That’s a key thing. He did go through a lot of training.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet there was a lot of opposition from the United States space establishment. Why?

LEONARD DAVID: I think from NASA’s view what you get out of it is they’re very concerned about safety; they still maintain that space is not routine enough for these type of guests visitation rights being handed out for pay. And in some ways, some of the astronaut corps — I don’t know how uniform it is, but you certainly get the view, that, when you have a team up in space that’s trained as an integrated crew, there is almost — kind of a way that they operate without even words. And when you bond like that, and have this broken up by somebody that’s not part of that team, there is concern, there’s worry about if an emergency happens, what is that person – will it get in the way – would be a millstone around the procedure that must be done.

RAY SUAREZ: We just passed the 15 year Anniversary of the Challenger explosion. Is our, in the United States space establishment still somewhat in the shadow of Challenger?

LEONARD DAVID: I think in some ways. Maybe a ripple effect from challenger still vibrating through NASA about safety, safety, safety. That is NASA administrator’s Golden’s primary lecture to anybody that listens to his speeches is definitely safety is going to be the top priority here. The cosmonauts and the Russians, they have safety measures as well. They may be a little more liberal in how they go about space flight. I’m not saying it’s more risky, but it’s definitely a different attitude about space than the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even with a pretty small number of people getting ready to go into space, planning is moving ahead on making it more possible for people to spend time up there. Let’s take a look at some of the things that are being designed now to get people ready to spend more time in space. Tell us about what we’re looking at now.

LEONARD DAVID: This is a private group, United States called Space Hab and has a module called the Enterprise module that it’s now putting together and raising money on a commercial venture to actually attach to the international space station.

RAY SUAREZ: That aerosol can thing in the lower center?

LEONARD DAVID: Right called the enterprise. And there is some chats about whether or not that can be convert neighborhood almost a condominium type of operation where people might be able to have a place to actually go and in some ways this may be an operational way out of the concerns that NASA has that the person visiting would be in a fairly — a separate unit away from the crew in a that has to be doing the day-to-day operations of the station.

RAY SUAREZ: So you could be on your own. With living space such a premium in space this looks pretty nice.

LEONARD DAVID: Gets architects in there to make a room with a view and have a pretty good deal going for yourself.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there commercial ventures that are moving forward in more than just an abstract way getting people up there?

LEONARD DAVID: I think in the last few years more and more resort designs groups; I understand even in the Hilton folks have started investigating whether or not a space hotel is feasible. There are some early architectural concepts that suggest we’re going to see this type of facility in the future, and our friend Dennis Tito sort of opened the air lock to let a lot of other passengers through.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, when we look at a structure like this, this doesn’t depend on the space station; this is a separate floating….

LEONARD DAVID: This would be a commercial activity. The key here, though, this is where it is going to take money. This is not even going to be cheap for a commercial outing. You have got to start dropping the price per pound of getting payloads into orbit. It costs something like $10,000 a pound now. As soon as space transportation costs go down I think people’s expectations of space hotels and resort areas in space can go up.

RAY SUAREZ: So you would have to be able to move large numbers of people at once and cheaply to make something like the hotel feasible?

LEONARD DAVID: That’s right. I think you have got to start designing vehicles not so much like the shuttle where you’ve got a closed cargo but how do you build a rocket where you have exit/entrance ramps that are easier to get into? And I think there are serious concerns, like Boeing, some other aerospace companies, that have some of their more creative engineers looking at the prospect.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re in the year 2001. It was supposed to be here all right. What’s a rational time frame?

LEONARD DAVID: Well, this first Enterprise module is looking something like 2003. I think the key will have to be the space transportation cost that is dropping down. And so I would say in another ten, fifteen years, maybe we’ll see more traffic in space. Who knows? Casinos — whatever you would like to see in space, it probably can happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Leonard David, thanks a lot.

LEONARD DAVID: Thanks a lot.