Update: Charles Simonyi blasted off in the Russian’s Soyuz spacecraft on Thursday, March 26, for his second trip to the space station. The Russian Federal Space Agency also announced that it will no longer be taking “private” space tourist after 2009.
In 1995, Peter Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which started a private space race by offering big money to the first group that could perform two manned suborbital flights within two weeks. In 1998, he cofounded Space Adventures Ltd. with $250,000 in seed capital and an even more audacious idea for bringing the private sector to bear on space exploration: tourism. It took three years of negotiations with the Russian authorities, but in 2001, former NASA engineer turned financier Dennis Tito flew to the International Space Station and back in a Soyuz capsule’s third seat, next to the commander and engineer. Tito and Space Adventures opened the stars to anyone who could pay the freight.
Since Tito, five have followed. First was Mark Shuttleworth, a young South African Internet tycoon who was a key player in the rise of secure e-commerce. The second was Greg Olsen, a scientist who made his fortune developing near-infrared cameras. The first female space tourist, Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur (and part of the family that sponsored the $10 million X Prize), flew third. Fourth was computer scientist Charles Simonyi, the former Microsoft executive responsible for Word and Excel. Finally, there was Richard Garriott, the son of a NASA astronaut, who’s more famous as his alter ego, Lord British–a ruler in Ultima, the online world that he dreamed up. Space Adventures has brokered all of these trips, to a greater or lesser extent, and it claims to have sold $200 million worth of space travel so far.
Technology Review has set out to compile the first oral history of space tourism. We asked each of the five travelers who came after Tito to describe the trip. They gave hours of their time, sitting separately for multiple interviews over a six-month period. Most have never met, but they all told essentially the same story of blastoff, weightlessness, reëntry, and revelation. We’ve distilled, edited, and organized their words to create a composite story of what a space vacation is really like.
Garriott: I grew up in an astronaut household, and my right-hand next-door neighbor was Joe Engle, an astronaut. My left-hand neighbor was Hoot Gibson, another astronaut. I had another astronaut over the back fence, and many others in my one-block walk around the neighborhood as a kid. So I grew up believing everybody went to space, because everybody did go to space, if you know what I mean. It was a NASA physician who told me that my poor eyesight would prevent me from being selected as a NASA astronaut. While briefly that made me very sad, it also made me realize that if I was going to get to space, it was going to have to be through the route of privatization, not the route of government.
Shuttleworth: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was fairly clear that the Russian space program was going through a bit of a financial crisis, and there were rumors that they were talking to people about private flight. I tried getting hold of the Russian consulate in Cape Town but didn’t have a lot of success.
Garriott: I had been investing in the privatization of space since I first began to make money in the computer games industry. I was one of the first investors in Space Adventures. I personally paid for the study to find out if it would be possible and how much it would cost. When [the Russian Federal Space Agency] came back with the price, I actually had the money and was prepared to go.
Shuttleworth: We went to Moscow, primarily to meet different players in the industry. The medical establishment, the military guys in Star City [site of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center]. Dennis [Tito] hadn’t flown yet.
Garriott: We began to move as if I was going to be the first civilian to fly in space. Unfortunately, that’s also when the dot-com crash occurred, and of course, being a high-tech guy, all of my assets were in high tech. I got wiped out.
Shuttleworth: There was no standard deal. You had to negotiate with the folks who do the suits, the folks who do the medical, the folks who do the training, the folks who provide the vehicle, the folks who do the in-flight monitoring, and the space agency as an overall body.