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The first three paying astronauts (left to right, Greg Olsen, Mark Shuttleworth, and Dennis Tito) found that comfort was not guaranteed with their tickets. Enduring the rigors of spaceflight that professionals do was yet another price to pay. (NASA)

Space Trippers

Did the first paying guests aboard the international space station get their $20 million worth?

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Just minutes before it was all over, pioneering space tourist Greg Olsen heard the most memorable two words of his two-year, $20 million odyssey to the International Space Station.

From This Story

“Olsen,” barked Sergei Krikalev, the commander of the Soyuz capsule hurtling back to Earth after the entrepreneur’s eight-day stay aboard the ISS, “Kislorod!”

Olsen, the oxygen!

A leak in the reentry capsule was causing a loss of pressure, and with three crew members jammed into the vehicle knee to knee, neither Krikalev nor NASA’s John Phillips could reach the oxygen valve that might have to save their lives. In a flash, Olsen appreciated the value of seven months of methodical training at Star City, outside Moscow, with Russian air force instructors repeatedly drilling him to respond to every conceivable emergency.

In this case, the leak was minor and his action at the valve was not critical. But the experience cemented Olsen’s belief that he was not merely a tourist, but a crew member.

“That’s where the training comes in,” Olsen recalls. “I could just tell by watching Krikalev that he had everything under control, and his control gave me confidence.”

Dennis Tito, the first paying customer to spend a week in space, spun the 2001 experience in a few guarded interviews as a heavenly idyll from which he was loath to return. (He declined requests for an interview for this article.) Olsen, who became the third space tourist in 2005, and Mark Shuttleworth, who preceded him by three years, are more open and recently described their experiences in unprecedented detail: from cosmic epiphanies to constipation, from awe at the spectacle of Earth from orbit to frustration at the red tape they had to endure to get there.

Olsen and Shuttleworth both struck it rich in high-tech during the 1990s. Olsen founded and sold Sensors Unlimited, Inc., a maker of fiber-optic devices. Shuttleworth created Thawte Consulting, Inc., a designer of Internet security software that he sold to VeriSign, Inc. Aside from that, they have little in common.

Shuttleworth, a South African now based in London, was under 30 when he flew—a bachelor who brought his parents to share the preflight week at Russia’s venerable Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan. Olsen, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, is a quarter-century older, a divorced father of two grown daughters.

Olsen, who has a down-to-earth personality, recalls that his “Eureka!” moment—deciding to go on a spaceflight—came over his regular morning coffee at Starbucks, reading about Shuttleworth’s mission in the New York Times.

Olsen still compares himself negatively to his space-faring crewmates, especially “renaissance intellectual” Krikalev. “The only thing I’ve figured out how to do is make money,” he says by way of comparison.

The 33-year-old Shuttleworth has a more remote demeanor, yet comes off as being suffused with romantic enthusiasm. “By 1999, I was in a position where I could do anything, so I asked myself: What is the one thing you want to do before you die?” he recalls during a conversation at a Novotel hotel in London’s Docklands. “The answer that came back immediately was to go into space, taking a step down an inevitable path that we as a species have to follow.”

He brought a business team to Moscow with him to negotiate each detail of his mission, sometimes dealing across the table from 15 Russian agencies and institutes. Shuttleworth pushed for his own experiments, which he chose from a competition among South African universities.

Olsen also became involved with experiments. When the U.S. military banned him from taking one of his own company’s infrared cameras to space for experiments, he gamely agreed to serve as a human guinea pig for a European Space Agency study, making various abrupt movements while in orbit to see which ones would induce him to vomit. Fortunately, he turned out to be among the (completely unpredictable) 50 percent of travelers who prove resistant to space nausea.

The two tourists also pursued more personal interests. Olsen took lessons from Krikalev on how to photograph his neighborhood in Princeton from space. Shuttleworth arranged to receive a daily bulletin from NASA detailing erupting volcanoes and other extreme geological phenomena he could see from orbit, so that he could knock off work and watch them.

The Generation X-er and the laid-back baby boomer agree on the fundamentals: that their sojourn in outer space was, in the end, worth the money and tribulation. The pair also agree that the trip would not have been worth it just to act the millionaire, paying for a week of thrills. Much, if not most, of the lasting satisfaction for these two high achievers came from meeting the challenges of learning the Soyuz and ISS and living among the global astronaut/cosmonaut elite; training with space masters for four hours a day and winning their respect. “The high point for me was just completing the task,” Olsen recalls. “After I landed, the first thought that came to me was, ‘Thank God I didn’t screw up.’ ”

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.

The software superstar decided to “convince the Russians I was really serious by doing the horrible stuff first.” That meant checking in for “three weeks of pretty comprehensive poking and prodding” at Moscow’s Institute of Medical and Biological Problems. The date was late 2001, and the cosmonauts’ hospital bore the earmarks of a decade of post-Soviet shortages and neglect: “It was quite extraordinary to be tested by the same doctors and on the same equipment as all the early cosmonauts,” Shuttleworth says.

Olsen, who made his first trip to Russia in October 2003 and flew in October 2005, reported no particular business hassles, relying on the Tito/Shuttleworth precedent and his own go-with-the-flow attitude. “I paid up, showed up, and shut up,” he summarizes.

Nonetheless, his mission was almost derailed when, in April 2004, doctors found a spot on one of his chest X-rays. It took nine months of affidavits from U.S. physicians to persuade the Russians it was harmless. “People always ask me whether I was scared going into space,” Olsen says. “I answer them, ‘Yes, I was scared I wouldn’t get to go.’ ”

While Olsen relied mostly on translators at Star City, the fabled compound in the pines that has incubated Russian space pioneers since the days of Yuri Gagarin, Shuttleworth plunged into four hours a day of Russian language tutoring. He considered this “like brain surgery without anesthetic,” but essential to the experience.

Shuttleworth’s struggles to cope with Russians and Russian-ness continued during his cosmonaut training. But they shifted from a bureaucratic plane to an emotional one, and became far more rewarding.

“Living in Star City for eight months shapes you perhaps more than the act of flying in space,” he reflects. “To be immersed in a culture that is fascinating, complex, difficult, and where you are at once welcome and excluded.”

He remembers the cradle of Soviet spaceflight as a cross between “an isolated village in the forest with its own sauna” and a throwback to the university days he had completed in Capetown just six years earlier: “It’s a lot like school. You crisscross campus all day from the simulator to the hydro lab. There are standard, pre-packaged chunks of knowledge you have to absorb in order to graduate.”

Classes are interspersed with two hours of physical training a day. But Star City is no boot camp. “The folks at one of the universities back home were pushing me to get in terrific shape for one of the experiments I’d be performing,” Shuttleworth recalls. “The Russians were more worried that I’d turn an ankle if I was running too hard.”

As at college, no one lets the course work get in the way of long nights of socializing. Shuttleworth and Olsen lived in a dorm reserved for foreigners; their neighbors down the hall were astronauts from Italy and Brazil. But the young South African’s overriding social goal was to pledge the fraternity of Russian space jocks across the quad, and that meant participating in their time-honored rituals.

“Being willing to sit in the cosmonauts’ quarters and celebrate someone’s birthday with rounds and rounds of vodka toasts brings you closer to the group,” he says. “And they’re very gracious afterwards. They’ll walk you home and make sure you don’t die falling into a snow drift.”

Olsen was content to keep his distance from the epicenter of Star City partying. His best friend in the compound became American astronaut Bill McArthur, and the two wiled away the country nights in a gentler manner than their Russian colleagues: “Bill and I just hit it off. We found out we both enjoyed red wine. We both have two daughters. We had a lot in common.”

Olsen’s training memories focus more on the mission prep itself. He wowed his handlers early on with his extraordinary balance: “The Russians have this dentist’s chair, and as you’re spinning in it, you make head movements. They believe you can get used to it and prepare yourself for weightlessness, while NASA doesn’t subscribe to that at all. What I can say is I did religiously everything the Russians told me to do and I didn’t get sick.”

But Olsen still burns with chagrin when he recalls small screw-ups, like tangling his seat belts the first time he rehearsed routines inside the Soyuz capsule. “Olsen,” snapped cosmonaut Valery Tokarev. “Belts twisted.” After that, the multimillionaire guest flier snuck into the Soyuz on his lunch hour, snapping and unsnapping his three sets of restraints until he could do it in his sleep.

There was pressure to live up to the skills and aptitudes of the men who spend half a year at a time in a 150-foot tube hurtling through space.

“Two things equally surprised me about the astronauts and cosmonauts,” Olsen says. “One is how super-competent they really are. The second is that there is none of the superstar-ism that you see in athletics. They are typical of the best aspects of military culture. They are mission-oriented, not self-oriented.”

INTENSE AS STAR CITY may be, it doesn’t take long to leave it, and the rest of the planet, emotionally behind once the Soyuz roars into space. As Greg Olsen remembers it, it took about four minutes.

By then the rocket has climbed to 50 miles. It casts off its protective heat shield and “you look back and see this big blue sphere slowly receding from you. I had such a feeling of joy and peace.”

Aboard the ISS itself, Olsen was struck by the fast pace and regimentation of the day. His astronaut/cosmonaut friends had traded carousing in the Russian woods for a life of endless drills, punctuated only by half a dozen daily briefings in which mission control assigns more drills. “There is a procedure for everything in space,” Olsen relates. “The astronauts don’t have all that much free time between experiments, all the maintenance work they have to do, and conferences with the ground.”

Shuttleworth was impressed by the odd aesthetics of a facility that seems to have borrowed interior details from its doomed predecessor, Mir. “The space station is sort of super high-tech and super low-tech at the same time,” he notes. “A lot of the design features look like a 1960s or ’70s caravan [trailer].”

Olsen’s recollections are more visceral. One of the lesser-known effects of weightlessness, he relates, is that it slows your digestion. On his sixth day in space, NASA doctor Richard Jennings asked Olsen, during their daily private medical conference, whether he had moved his bowels yet. The space visitor said that he had not. “Don’t worry, Olsen, you’ll never break the record,” Jennings answered. “It’s 14 days.”

Characteristically, the young South African focused on the interpersonal subtleties of five men sharing limited room in outer space. “It’s a bit like coming to someone’s house, because there’s a team that has already been up there for six months,” Shuttleworth says. “Coming to work with them in their house under stressful conditions.”

Their interludes aboard ISS took place during eight-day shift changes, with two pairs of astronauts plus themselves cohabiting. The two tourists had the luxury of four hours a day of free time, while the professional astronauts were busy with the orbital equivalent of swabbing the deck.

Both visitors spent a lot of time watching the world go ’round beneath them. “Just floating and looking out the window.... Those are great memories,” Olsen says.

Shuttleworth drew moral conclusions from the vista: “It’s amazing to see how connected the Earth is. It takes 23 minutes to cross Africa from Morocco to Mozambique. It makes you feel we have to be a lot more cautious about how we use it.”

And after it was all over? Both space tourists alighted on terra firma unemployed but mildly famous: “It’s hard to say whether it’s the experience that changes you or the way people treat you afterward,” Shuttleworth observes.

They both say they would go up again, though not to repeat the same mission. The pair naturally turned to proselytizing for space and science education. Shuttleworth pursued this mission with more fervor and single-mindedness, touring schools and addressing as many as 1,000 students at a time.

He made a name for himself as “the first African in space,” but also gained “a real appreciation of the downside of the rock star’s life.”

Burn-out happily brought Shuttleworth back to his first love, software, and he is currently absorbed in gestating Ubuntu, a Linux-based operating system.

“I’d love to fly again, but I think I’ve stretched the Russian Space Agency for everything it has to offer,” he says.

Greg Olsen has visited more than 150 U.S. schools and colleges in the year since his ISS mission. But the pace still leaves him plenty of time to commune with his coffee and newspaper at the Starbucks on Nassau Street, or stare out the window at the university campus “figuring out what to do with the rest of my life.”

In the meantime, the nascent space tourism industry Shuttleworth and Olsen helped kickstart is moving forward—at least for those with tens of millions in disposable income.

And the $20 million price tag is not likely to drop any time soon, according to Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that acts as a travel agent for these trips. Company spokeswoman Stacey Tearne says that the price, determined primarily by the Russian Space Agency, will more than likely increase as more people sign up to go (see “Waiting Their Turns,” p. 48).

Space is not yet open to the ocean cruise crowd, which is why people like Olsen and Shuttleworth chose to go. When reaching orbit is considered cheap and easy, look for over-achievers like them to be camping on Mars.

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