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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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.

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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