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)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

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.

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.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus