Did the first paying guests aboard the international space station get their $20 million worth?
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 3 of 8)
Both Olsen and Shuttleworth also learned afresh that neither money nor technology can protect you from unforeseen difficulties or insulate you from unexpected joys. Serendipitous salvation came to Shuttleworth before his launch, as he contemplated whether he really wanted to go through with being “an ant inside a cannonball, where the behavior of both the cannon and the ball are entirely out of your hands.”
At that moment of indecision, his cell phone rang: it was a wrong number from South Africa. This injection of absurdity somehow gave him the courage to board the Soyuz. “That guy had no idea what was going on,” he laughs. “But it was a great morale lifter.”
Olsen came nearest to despair when his outgoing Soyuz arrived at the space station. After two cramped days and 35 orbits aligning the capsule’s trajectory so it could dock with the ISS at 17,000 mph, the exit door refused to open. Olsen and his chaperones on the flight up, Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev, set to good old-fashioned pulling, wedging their feet against the Soyuz floor as best they could for leverage. Visions danced in Olsen’s head of a summary return to Earth, with an uncertain prospect of any refund on his $20 million.
But after five minutes the jam inexplicably gave way. The three fliers entered the station at last, to find Krikalev and Phillips floating forward to extend a modified version of the traditional Russian welcome of bread and salt. “You can’t use real salt because it would fly around everywhere,” Olsen recalls, “so they have bread and put a water–and–salt solution on it.” The moment was no less delicious.
THE GIG AS a space tourist starts with a vision, a considerable net worth, a big chunk of free time, and a reasonably but not obsessively fit body (being slightly overweight is an advantage when dealing with weightlessness.)
But it also starts with a mountain of paperwork. Escaping Earth’s gravity first requires attaining enough velocity to plow through the bureaucracy of the Russian government.
As the first to fly, Dennis Tito battled 10 years for his chance, including outflanking fierce opposition from NASA by booking with the Russian Space Agency. Shuttleworth was able to compress that to less than two, but only through a lobbying campaign in Moscow that spared neither resources nor time.
“There are the guys who make the vehicle, the guys who do the training, the guys who give the medical certification, and you have to contract with all of them separately,” he says, describing the hellish talks that preceded his flight.