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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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.

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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