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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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.”

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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