I recently wrote a blog post on the “The Long Path to Space Tourism” about pre-twenty-first century efforts to make possible ordinary people traveling into space. In addition that story, I also want to discuss a major breakthrough in space tourism that came in 2001. Dennis Tito pioneered the way for orbital space tourism by spending a week in April 2001 on the International Space Station (ISS). In so doing, advocates of space tourism believed that he had challenged and overturned the dominant paradigm of human spaceflight: national control of who flies in space overseen with a heavy hand by NASA and the Russian Space Agency.
Dennis Tito’s saga began in June 2000 when he signed a deal with MirCorp to fly aboard a Soyuz rocket to the Russian space station Mir. MirCorp acted as Tito’s broker with the Russian space firm Energia, which owned both Mir and the rocket that would get Tito into space. While MirCorp had grandiose plans for operating a space station supporting tourists and commercial activities it failed to obtain the venture capital necessary to make it a reality. A fascinating documentary on this effort may be found in “Orphans of Apollo.” The company’s leaders they failed to raise enough money to keep Mir in orbit and the Russians announced in December 2000 that they would de-orbit the space station.
This forced Dennis Tito to look elsewhere for a trip into space, and he negotiated a deal with the Russians fly aboard a Soyuz rocket to ISS. While the cash starved Russian Space Agency was happy to make this deal, no one bothered to discuss it with any of the international partners building ISS. A melt down in public relations ensued and NASA led the other partners in a rebellion that reached high into the political systems of the United States and Russia. NASA tried to persuade Tito to postpone his flight in February 2001, ostensibly to undergo two months of additional training before flying in October, but really to win time to convince the Russians not to allow Tito to fly to ISS.
NASA and the other international partners building ISS argued that this slippage was paramount because of safety considerations on orbit. Ever a cagey gamester, Tito saw the trap and refused. He forced a confrontation with NASA at the gates of Johnson Space Center in March, where he planned to undergo training in preparation for an April 2001 flight. NASA lost that argument and was crucified by space enthusiasts for trying to block access to space for ordinary tourists. The Johnson Space Center acting director at the time, Roy W. Estess, reflected a year later that he and his staff did not handle the Tito episode well and would have been better off to embrace the effort, as always ensuring the safety of the mission.
With that one incident in Houston, Tito efforts became a cause celebré among space activists and NASA haters, who viewed him as the vanguard of a new age of space for everyone. Space psychologist Albert A. Harrison summarized the beliefs of many when he opined that “Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and Russia’s sale of a twenty million-dollar space station ticket to Dennis Tito represents but the first attempt to pry open the door for civilians in space. (Is there an irony that the Russians are the entrepreneurs prying open the door for space tourism while the Americans try to preserve a government monopoly?)”
A SPACE.com web site visitors poll taken in early May 2001—which did not represent a random sample by any means but suggested where the space enthusiasts came down on the issue—showed that 75 percent of respondents supported Tito’s flight, 24 percent believed he should not have flown, and 1 percent were undecided.
Tito would not allow anything or anything to stand in his way. In making his way over the objections of NASA, Tito may have paved the way for other millionaires to follow. South African Mark Shuttleworth also flew aboard ISS in the fall of 2001, without the rancor of the Tito mission. Others have made the excursion since that time and more will come, either paying their own ways or obtaining corporate sponsorships.
Space policy analyst Dwayne A. Day did not believe this is the best way to open the space frontier. He wrote, “Now that Tito has flown, it will not be the Earth-shattering precedent that space enthusiasts hoped for.…[I]s it any easier for the average citizen to raise $20 million in cash and buy a seat on a Soyuz than it is to get a Ph.D. in engineering and join the astronaut corps? No. Far from opening a frontier, Tito’s flight symbolizes just how out of reach space remains for the common person.”
The flight of Dennis Tito, however, offered a cautious precedent for the opening of space flight for the average person. Space tourism seems somewhat closer today than in earlier eras. If there is a way to bring down the cost of access to space then tourism might become common, but until then not much will happen, at least with the orbital aspects of space tourism. Without a convenient, safe, reliable, and less costly means to reach orbit little will change.
Once less expensive access to space is attained, an opening of the space frontier may well take place in much the same way as the American continental frontier emerged in the nineteenth century, through a linkage of courage and curiosity with capitalism. As it does so, the role of the government will become less dominant in orbital space. NASA will continue research and development for space systems and carry out far-reaching space science activities. But widespread human spaceflight may become the province of the commercial sector in the first half of the twenty-first century.