Article by Peter Maass

This Space for Rent

The New Republic Online  |  April 27, 2001
Dennis Tito is the Neil Armstrong of our time.

If all goes as planned, at 3:37 tomorrow morning a new space age will dawn. At that moment, a Russian capsule will bear into the blue sky and beyond the strangest cosmonaut of all time—a balding, 60-year-old businessman from Los Angeles who is paying a cool $20 million for his seat. Once just another bored multimillionaire, Dennis Tito has opened his considerable checkbook and is now hours away from achieving his childhood dream of looking down on Earth from 250 miles up in the heavens.

Tito would have preferred to purchase a seat on the space shuttle—living and training in Russia has not been much fun—but NASA was not interested. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has banned sending “ordinary” people into space. The agency decided that for safety reasons only bona fide astronauts, the anointed ones with years of specialized training and testing at Johnson Space Center, would be sent to the heavens. But the Russian space program’s dire need for cash made Tito’s personal fortune the new right stuff for space travel. Despite NASA’s best efforts, the Russians refused to let America’s space bureaucrats decide who could fly on Russian capsules, thereby clearing Dennis Tito for the ride of his life.

What NASA still doesn’t seem to understand is that Tito’s trip is the best thing that could happen to it. Assuming he doesn’t push the wrong buttons or open any hatches during his visit to the International Space Station, Tito will show that NASA’s stodgy policy is a self-defeating anachronism, as outdated as an all-male golf club.

It’s easy to bemoan the notion of space tourists (where is the nobility in hawking seats on rockets?) but government funding for space exploration is not terribly generous these days, and public support for it is rather soft. Space tourism offers the prospect of injecting much-needed funds into the American and Russian space programs, as well as generating public interest and enthusiasm. It’s true that the prospect of multimillionaires flying into space may not be all that exciting for very long, but it’s only the beginning. James Cameron, the director of Titanic, has reportedly talked with the Russians about hopping aboard a Soyuz, and Mark Burnett, the creator of “Survivor,” wants to produce a game show in which the winner will be shot into the cosmos (the winner, not the loser). Somehow I think those sorts of stunts will get a lot more people interested in space than another run-of-the-mill resupply mission. And once the cost of such trips comes down—the laws of supply and demand operate in zero G—it won’t be just the mega-millionaires who can afford such jaunts but, perhaps, the millionaire next door, too; it would only be a matter of time before Dan Rather is wrestling Tom Brokaw for the honor of doing a live shot from space.

What’s remarkable, of course, is that it’s the Russians who are leading the way in commercializing space travel. They’ve stolen the risk-taking spirit that drove NASA and inspired the American public during the race to the moon: its sense of daring, its heroic astronauts, its willingness to try the unimaginable and suffer the occasional failure. Compare NASA’s anal culture—which is, of course, a product of America’s cosseted, tamper-proof mood these days—to Russia’s improvisational one. The recently deceased Mir space station was mocked, in its final years, for its considerable malfunctions, including a near-fatal fire and collision. The station nevertheless stayed aloft for 15 years. Its longevity is a considerable triumph, one we can attribute to cosmonauts who were masters at doing repairs on the fly and didn’t mind living in a leaky spaceship (the station oozed fluids on its inside and lost air through tiny punctures).

Necessity has turned the ever-adaptable Russians into avatars of orbital capitalism. Years ago they began selling advertising space on the sides of their rockets, and cosmonauts filmed commercials on Mir for, among others, an Israeli milk company and Omega, the watch company. They also unfurled, during a spacewalk, a replica of a giant Pepsi can made of nylon. And back on Earth, their bosses considered sending two actors to Mir to make a movie about a lone cosmonaut who refuses to return to Earth and is lured home by a female cosmonaut sent to fetch him; to the eternal regret of film buffs around the world, the project fell through for lack of funding.

NASA should take note. It ought to begin sending non-astronauts into space, though not just the filthy rich. Want to rouse public interest in space exploration? Why not have a national lottery, with the winner getting a round trip ticket to space? Why not send a writer up there, somebody like Tom Clancy, or J.K. Rowling, or me? If James Cameron wants to make a movie in space, NASA would be wise to help the directorial king of the world become king of the universe.

Sure, Tito had his share of problems in getting the Russians to accept his money. Initially he was supposed to fly to Mir, but the aging station became too costly and erratic and was deorbited before he could visit it. So Tito and the Russians changed their focus to flying him on a weeklong Soyuz mission to the ISS. After much wrangling—Tito was required, last week, to sign a contract in which he pledged to pay NASA for any damage he might cause on the station—and assuming clear skies over the launch pad in Kazakhstan tonight, Tito’s dream will come true. His timing is perfect; it is, after all, 2001.