It was just 11 years ago this week that a Russian Soyuz capsule, returning from the International Space Station (the ISS), touched down with the world’s first space tourist aboard. Dennis Tito, an American millionaire, had actually worked for NASA in the 1960s, designing flight paths for the Mariner Mars probes. He founded a finance company in 1972 when he was 32 and had made his first million by the time he was 40. He had always wanted to travel to space and first looked into a space vacation in 1991, on a trip to Moscow. His intention was to go the Mir Space Station, but as disputes between the Russian space agency and NASA over the fate of Mir and the future development of the International Space Station continued it was agreed to deorbit Mir. Russian space officials later offered him a ride on a Soyuz supplying the ISS.
Tito had to undergo extensive training, living in a small apartment in Star City for nearly a year, but even with that he was required to sign a contract agreeing to pay for any breakages. He was also banned from US sections of the ISS unless escorted. He launched on April 28, 2001, becoming the 415th person ever to reach space. The cost of his seven day trip is reported to have been $20 million – or about $100,000 per hour!
NASA eased its concerns with other space tourists and another 6 hitched a lift with the Russians to the ISS. The last one, Guy Laliberté, the Canadian founder of Cirque de Soleil paid $35 million to get into orbit. A cheaper alternative is being developed, with 500 tickets at a mere $200,000 having been reserved on Virgin Galactic (actor Ashton Kutcher purchased ticket 500). With the terminal now complete in New Mexico, flights may well start next year.
Commercial activity in spaceflight is on the increase. With the retirement of the space shuttle last year, private companies have been awarded contracts by NASA to take on the job of transporting cargo to and from the Space Station. One company, SpaceX from California, has already shown that privately funded rockets can reach orbit and be recovered. It has a spacecraft on its way to the ISS right now! And even though it is delivering cargo, it is designed to carry crew in the future. Tickets anyone?
This episode was first broadcast week of May 7, 2012 and is the 100th episode!