Space Trippers

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

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)
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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.

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“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.

About Craig Mellow

Craig Mellow, a freelance journalist who lives in Savannah, Georgia, has written for Air & Space from Russia, Western Europe, and the United States.

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