"Very Stunning, Very Space, and Very Cool"
An oral history of the launch of space tourism.
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.
Individual Interview Excerpts
- CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/player/08/12/ansari.mp3"); Anousheh Ansari
- CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/player/08/12/garriott.mp3"); Richard Garriott
- CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/player/08/12/olson.mp3"); Greg Olsen
- CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/player/08/12/shuttleworth.mp3"); Mark Shuttleworth
- CreateFlash("http://www.technologyreview.com/player/08/12/simonyi.mp3"); Charles Simonyi
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.
Garriott: We really did sell my seat to Dennis Tito. I got wiped out by the dot-com crash and had to rebuild in order to find my way back to space.
Olsen: It was June 18, 2003. I was sitting in Starbucks reading the New York Times, with a great big coffee. There was a story about Space Adventures. And I said, “Wow. This sounds like something I’d like to do!”
Simonyi: The way you get there is very simple. You call Space Adventures.
Olsen: I looked them up on the Web, and the next thing I knew, [Space Adventures CEO] Eric Anderson was at my door. We hit it off immediately. In October, they took me over to a launch in Baikonur [the Russian launch site, located in Kazakhstan]. I met some of the people in the Russian Space Agency. I visited Star City. I went up in a MiG-29 and really had the experience. That part was a freebie. It definitely whetted my appetite. After that, I said, “Yeah, wow! I want to go.”
Shuttleworth: Space Adventures certainly helped with introductions, but I get a bit irritated when they present themselves as having facilitated everything.
Simonyi: I made the decision to go up very, very slowly. I actually went twice to Baikonur as a normal tourist, not a space tourist.
Olsen: I call it a “space participant.” But call it space tourist if you want.
Garriott: Just for the record, I hate both of those terms. I prefer the term “private astronaut” or “private cosmonaut,” or ”civilian astronaut” or “civilian cosmonaut.”
Simonyi: The launch is amazing just in terms of the kind of access that you get. We were partying next to the fully fueled rocket–practically touching it. We were laughing, talking, shouting greetings to the astronauts. It’s very confidence inspiring. You know something that you can party around is not dangerous. It’s a little bit like going onto a movie lot to watch the actor kissing the woman, and the director is saying, “Well you could be doing that.” And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And then Andersonsaid, “No, no. We are working with a client right now.”
Olsen: I had had a collapsed lung. They were obviously hyper about that. Made some issues about it. Finally, they accepted me in the program. In April of 2004, I went into training.
Simonyi: [Anderson] kind of just kind of looked at me and said, “Yeah, you could do it, I’m sure.”
Ansari: I started training as a backup, not even knowing if I would fly. Simonyi was already in line to fly.
Shuttleworth: I had to build a support team in Star City. Because, again, there was nothing from Space Adventures. It was modeled on the little offices that the European Space Agency and NASA maintain there, but on a much smaller scale.
Simonyi: Now they’ve created this program [the Orbital Mission Explorers Circle], and you pay your money and then you get an option for a seat. You invest into a position in the queue, and then every time a seat comes up, you can pass or you can take it. It’s a tradable position. You can sell your option for whatever the market will take. It’s very thinly traded. I don’t think any have traded yet. That guy [Google cofounder] Sergey Brin bought the first option.
Shuttleworth: The sticker price at my stage was $20 million. But the actual price paid is somewhat variable.
Garriott: Unfortunately, I am an insider, so I can’t really get discounts. I paid $30 million.
Simonyi: The price is $35 million. It used to be $25, and now it’s $35. The option price is much less. I bought an option–I said, “What the heck? I might want to go again!”
Shuttleworth: It’s being streamlined now, because there have been quite a few folks who have gone through the process, and because Space Adventures has actually bought seats in anticipation of their use, which they hadn’t done before.
Ansari: Three weeks before the flight, the guy who was flying, Dice-K [Daisuke Enomoto], the primary crew member, had some medical problems and failed one of his medical qualifications. That’s when they offered me to take his place. As you can imagine, this is not one of those opportunities that comes that easily, so without hesitation–and out of disbelief in a way, too–I just had to say yes.
All those who decide to go to the International Space Station must learn Russian and train at Star City, near Moscow, for at least three months.
Ansari: When you go to Star City, it’s down to basics, and sometimes not even basics.
Olsen: Star City used to be an air base; it’s now a college for cosmonauts. It’s a woodsy setting on a lake, a small village of about 3,000 people–a very idyllic place.
Garriott: There is an ambiance about the place that doesn’t feel like a traditional American overly well-lit bright and shiny office. It’s all a little dimmer and kind of surreal.
Ansari: Everything is on the verge of falling down.
Garriott: Nothing is wrong with old. I have been at NASA during some of their downturns and seen it in disrepair, too.
Ansari: The first day I came, there was no hot water. The next day, there was no hot water. I was going to the gym and taking showers over there. Finally I went down, and it’s like, “Do you know when the hot water will come back?” They said, “Yeah, in about a month.”
Olsen: The plumbing was a little rusty, so I had to get in and fix it, but I didn’t mind.
Ansari: When you turn on the faucet, brown rusty water comes out. If you let it run for 10 or 15 minutes, it starts getting clear, and you can take a decent clean shower.
Olsen: It’s kind of a culture shock.
Ansari: It is a military base. It taught me that you don’t need a lot of things to live happily. At home I go to 10 different places to buy just that one product that I’m used to, that one shampoo.
Olsen: Things are real cheap at the store they have on base. Like, bread is maybe 20 cents U.S.
Ansari: I’m lactose intolerant, so I drink soy milk. But there’s no soy milk over there on the military base.
Olsen: I ate at the cosmonaut cafeteria. Tea, hard-boiled eggs, and goulash was a typical breakfast, but I rolled with the punches. I wasn’t there to live like an American.
Simonyi: I grew up in Hungary; also, I’m a programmer, so I eat anything. The food was perfectly good.
Olsen: I grew up during the Cold War. Now all of a sudden I’m living with the enemy, okay? It’s a culture shock.
Simonyi: You run into people like Sergei Krikalyov. He’s probably the all-time most-adapted human to space: 800 days, six times, he flew.
Olsen: The only English you hear is around the NASA section. I’m not going to tell you I’m fluent in Russian. By far that was the hardest part, learning Russian. Class was 9:00 to 4:00, including four hours of Russian three days a week. Then, 4:00 to 6:00, weights and all kinds of stuff in the gym. Then go home and study. And every Friday we had exams, oral exams. You can bet I burned the midnight oil before the exams. Boy, you talk about being nervous. The so-called multimillionaire American businessman who’s a research scientist failing an exam!
Garriott: On the space station everybody speaks English, so it is no big deal. But on the Soyuz all the commands are in Russian, and all the instruments are labeled in Russian. So you want to get some fundamental mastery of Russian.
Shuttleworth: Four hours a day of intensive Russian is a little like brain surgery without anesthesia, but it was worth it. The faster you could get over that hump, the faster you could really start to interact.
Simonyi: Learning about the docking, communication, and reëntry systems was interesting.
Olsen: Sometimes I saw things that were a bit crude. They don’t have the budget NASA has, so a lot of things that they do, they do by ingenuity.
Shuttleworth: The other day I got a little guided tour of a high-end racing yacht with carbon fiber walls and floor, computerized gadgetry and winches, stuff like that. Someone said, “Wow, this is just like a spaceship!” I laughed and said, “A spaceship is a hell of a lot simpler than this.”
Simonyi: In the James Bond movies there’s Q, who creates all these fantastic devices. It’s not like that at all. Many of the devices on the spacecraft are almost from Jules Verne!
Shuttleworth: I was in training for a long time. I watched successions of NASA astronauts be very dismissive of the Soyuz. The worst thing I heard someone say was that if you got a small village together and asked them to design a spaceship, it would be like the Soyuz.
Garriott: You can look at the original Soyuz, and the same physical design–same molds, even–appear to have been used throughout its history. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But anything that has ever gone wrong or failed, they fix. Or if there is some new technology that comes along that would be of significant benefit, they change it also. The Soyuz has a glass [i.e., modern] cockpit, for example.
Shuttleworth: The NASA guys who went through the training program and actually got to the point where they could be a flight engineer or a commander, without exception, loved it. They suddenly realize that they can fly the damn thing without ground control, data feeds, and teams and teams of specialists.
Ansari: When it gets close to flight time, they take you to quarantine in Baikonur.
Olsen: We spend about 10 days there, so it’s a bit boring. They were always giving you some kind of medical test.
Simonyi: The final checkout is in a doctor’s office, with a medical team of three or four doctors. It’s the most junior one who gives you the enema.
Garriott: The thing is to try to make sure you don’t need to use the rest room on board the Soyuz.
Olsen: Here’s the reason: on the Soyuz capsule, there’s a facility for a bowel movement, but you really don’t want to make a bowel movement on it. Imagine using a teapot to make a bowel movement. All right?
Shuttleworth: The most difficult period for me was the day before launch, because until that point it’s just a complete whirlwind of activity. But during that final stretch, you have nothing to do but ponder. I remember going for a bit of a stroll when my phone rang. Very few people know that number. And I thought, “Wow. It’s amazing how the universe works! I’m thinking about these difficult issues, and a member of my family or a close friend is calling!” I answered, and it was a wrong number. A lad from Africa had called. It was pretty funny: “No help there, mate. You’ve got to do this one on your own.”
Garriott: Space travel is not the safest of all pastimes. But if you are going to fly, I like the Soyuz. If you look at the space shuttle, with two failures out of 150 launches or so, those are actually not great odds.
Shuttleworth: Soyuz failed early in the program and then had a safe run in, like, the last 30 or so flights.
Simonyi: Four people have died on the Soyuz. But in some sense their loss made the craft even safer.
Shuttleworth: I wouldn’t say that the Soyuz program is getting safer and safer just because they have a flawless record over the last 20 years. I just didn’t want the last thing that I thought when I got hit by a bus to be, “Damn, I should have gone.”
The trip to the International Space Station begins with a bus ride to the launchpad and an elevator ride to a Soyuz capsule atop a Russian rocket the height of a 16-story building. There are rituals and customs that accompany every aspect of spaceflight, but never so many as on the day of a Russian launch.
Garriott: The Russians are a superstitious lot.
Olsen: A lot of traditions come from Yuri Gagarin [the first human in space]. When he was going out to the launch, he had to take a leak. They just didn’t make any provisions for it. He said, “Stop the bus.” He got off the bus and peed on the rear tire, and ever since then, that’s mandatory.
Ansari: Fortunately, I found a way to excuse myself. I asked our commander [Mikhail Tyurin], “Can you just think of me while doing your business on the tire?” He said, “Of course I will do that for you, Anousheh. Anything.”
Shuttleworth: You know, it took me a little while to go to the loo then. And people were teasing me, you know, about standing around and waving my willy at the girls in Kazakhstan.
Simonyi: It’s a wonderful tradition. A great way to relax.
Ansari: Before the flight I was worried I would be a nervous wreck. I had told my flight surgeon, “If you see my blood pressure or my heart rate is high, don’t let them stop the flight!”
Olsen: Even walking out to the launchpad, we had all of these heart monitors.
Garriott: You’re walking to this fully fueled rocket, full of kerosene and oxygen. The thing is so cold it’s covered with white frost. The air that’s near it is coming streaming down the sides because it’s cooler and denser. It’s very clear that you are stepping into something that is on the edge, so to speak. And you climb on board.
Ansari: I was told that Greg Olsen was very calm.
Olsen: I had the lowest heart rate of any of us. Sixty beats per minute on launch.
Shuttleworth: He’s telling that to everybody.
Ansari: I had to practice meditation, all sorts of things, to bring my pulse down.
Simonyi: Being in the Soyuz before launch is the greatest. You feel so centered, so comfortable. There’s this nice humming noise. It smells fantastic. And you have plenty of time. The whole point, I think, is that there’s no hurry. There’s no pressure. They have these two words. One of them is normalna, which means “normal.” The other one is spakoyna, which is like “easy” or “quiet.” These are the chief words during that time.
Ansari: You sit there and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m finally here!” It’s a surreal situation. You’re like, “I’m actually sitting on top of a rocket. In a few minutes it will ignite, and I will be sent off with these amazing speeds into space.” For someone who is a civilian, it’s, like, unbelievable.
Simonyi: So you are there and they say, “You guys, we have about 30 minutes, and you have nothing to do. Do you want to listen to some music?” I said, “Sure.” And so they were playing Abba’s “Money, Money, Money,” which I didn’t recognize at first, but the other cosmonauts recognized it right away, and they were kind of nudging me. Yeah, everybody had a laugh.
Garriott: I would have called ours elevator music. Immediately what struck me is, “Here we are in the elevator to the heavens–listening to elevator music.”
Olsen: If I could have had music? “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Simonyi: In your hand is this checklist that is prepared on Microsoft Word and printed on a normal laser printer. It’s nothing special. It’s just this checklist held together by three rings. You basically just hear the checklist on the radio. All the commander does is look at the indications and reports, but the ground has the same indications. There are no activities for the crew.
Shuttleworth: It’s a bit dull, to be honest. You’re on a live mike, so you really don’t want to be chattering away.
Garriott: I settled in the chair and took a nap. There is nothing happening during that 40-minute window. You are in this adrenaline lull. Then the radio comes back on, says “We are five minutes from launch,” and stuff starts happening.
Olsen: Everything has a procedure when you take off. Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. And they follow it, one by one.
Simonyi: It’s like going to the opera or the symphony. You take the score with you to understand what’s going on. You appreciate more if you have the written score.
Garriott: Even before you can feel the thrust, you can feel that there is a massive amount of fluid shifting. Then the engines start some seconds prior to liftoff, so you can feel all that stuff power up. You can feel a bit of sway because of the wind. And then, right on time, right at launch moment, the Soyuz just very gently, but confidently, begins to step off the pad.
Olsen: Listen, when I felt that rocket rumbling, I got serenely peaceful. I’m thinking, “Yes! The next 10 days belong to me, and nobody can take this away from me.”
Garriott: You are going, “Well, okay, if this goes well, it’s going to be a gentle ride up. If this goes badly, hopefully that escape tower is going to work. Either way, life or death, it’s going to be pretty raucous!”
Shuttleworth: It’s a profound experience. You’re mixing moments of terror with moments of pure joy.
Olsen: At launch, we got to about three and a half G’s. I tried to raise my arm, and it felt like I had a 10-pound weight on it.
Ansari: The pressure was not bad at all. Between the first stage and the second stage, it was like time stopped. Everything came to standing still for just a few seconds. Then it started back again. You get a kick there.
Olsen: After about eight minutes the G forces go away and you know you’re going close to 17,000 miles an hour. It’s a constant velocity, so there’s no force.
Shuttleworth: The thing I remember as being quite striking was this collection of very domestic sounds that kicks in after the main-engine cutoff. Mechanical sounds, like the air circulation and the conditioning, and then bits and pieces are kind of kicking in. You’ve got alarm clocks and fans, and you’ve got a big device called the “globus.” It’s a ball–your map, basically–that turns, and it starts going tick, tick, tick, like a cuckoo clock. You’ve just gone through this extraordinary experience of getting up into space, and then suddenly it’s like waking up inside the workshop of an old Swiss clockmaker or something. So it’s this amazing contrast between what you might expect–which should involve special effects and background music–and the very mechanical physical reality of it.
Ansari: The next thing I knew, this pen that was attached to a string started floating. It was just so crazy in my head. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in space!”
Olsen: When you go weightless, one of the effects is that you have to urinate a lot because of fluid shift.
Simonyi: The fluids are behaving differently in the bladder.
Olsen: So, I’m dying to go, and finally I’m saying to myself, “Gee, I’m probably going to have to use this diaper. This might smell the capsule.” I lean over to the commander–on the surface, he’s like a stern Russian, but he’s a great guy–and tell him, like I’m tipping him off.
Simonyi: In the capsule you communicate by nudges, because you all face forward and it’s hard to turn your head. You can’t see each other. But you can certainly feel the rest of their body. You are kind of pretty much just joined.
Olsen: Then he leans over to me and says, in English, “Don’t worry, Greg Olsen. I already went.” Once I heard that, I just let go.
Garriott: I did wear and need a diaper during launch. You’re psychologically motivated not to need it, but you quickly learn to get over your difficulty and use the device as designed.
Olsen: It didn’t smell. Those diapers are well made.
Garriott: I don’t think there is any way I could have gone the distance without it, so to speak.
Ansari: It took another while before they allowed us to take off the belts and be able to float in the cabin.
Simonyi: When you are weightless and in the seat, it’s an interesting feeling, but not that big a deal. When I saw Oleg [the flight engineer] open the hatch above and fly out of his seat, through the hatch, and into the living room, that was amazing.
Olsen: We have this habitat module on the top.
Simonyi: There’s this famous picture of Christ rising by the medieval painter [Matthias] Grünewald. It’s just a fantastic painting, and these guys just floating like angels reminded me of it. It’s amazing. And then you do it. I mean, it’s fabulous.
Garriott: When you actually get a chance to look down at Earth from space, of course the view is spectacular. You can tell you’re high because of the blackness of space, the curvature of the earth. But the view, at least looking straight down to the ground, isn’t that different from the view you might see out of an airplane window.
Simonyi: We had a Velcro curtain on the window. At one point I was trying to steal a glimpse of Earth, but [the commander] nudged me, and he raised his voice and ordered me to stop. In a real commander fashion.
Ansari: They really caution you the first couple of days about looking out the window, especially looking at the earth.
Simonyi: The Soyuz is put into a constant rotation so that the solar panels face the sun. Looking at the earth while the spacecraft is rotating can get you sick. You can get sick even if you don’t look at the earth. That’s called space adaptation syndrome. And that rotation exacerbates the effects of space adaptation syndrome. So for the first couple of orbits we weren’t supposed to look at the earth.
Ansari: You have to take it really easy, move slowly, move your head slowly or don’t move your head at all if possible. I felt great during the launch. I felt great right after the launch. Then it was time to sleep, and we set our sleeping bags.
Olsen: It’s just, like, so weird when you sleep for the first time. I struggled to get to sleep, just because you’re so excited. It’s strange, and it feels good.
Simonyi: I was dreaming that I was on the ground. I’m in Star City just training, filling out this form, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then I was awakened by the commander. I was kind of disoriented. Where am I? Oh, I’m in a spacecraft going around the earth!
Ansari: After I woke up, I was like, “Oh, it’s my first day in space, first morning in space.” I was so excited. I started flying out of my sleeping bag. Flying around, looking out the window. Going from one window to the other window.
Garriott: Just being able to flip and spin like an incredible professional gymnast and land with your face next to a window looking out at a big gorgeous sunrise is really fantastic.
Ansari: That’s when the whole Soyuz started spinning around my head. I knew that I just did something I wasn’t supposed to–and I got really ill.
Olsen: About 40 percent of all people who go into space do. It has nothing to do with being macho.
Ansari: I didn’t let them see it. I thought, “Oh my God, they will think I’m stupid. I have my vomit floating around the cabin.” I managed to grab a bag before it got too bad. I just had a little bit of it floating around. The good thing about it is it’s floating, so you can catch it. I was able to catch it with a napkin and put it in the bag before they all could see it.
After two days of travel, the Soyuz capsule reaches low Earth orbit and begins to dock with the International Space Station.
Simonyi: Docking is fully automatic.
Olsen: The commander has the ability to take over the ship, but it’s all done by radio controls. You’re basically bouncing a radio beam off the ISS. That’s telling you how far away you are, plus what velocity you’re approaching the station at.
Simonyi: You start being aware of the presence of this incredible structure. You see it very small at first. And then you can see details of it, just through an optical sight. It’s like a very old-fashioned–I don’t know what it is. There is nothing, no items like that anymore, I’m sure. It’s a periscope, in a sense, but you don’t put your eye next to it. It’s a projection on a matte glass: it has this faint, faint image. It’s very sharp, of course, but it’s not very bright.
Shuttleworth: I was focused on the periscope, because that’s where it’s approaching.
Simonyi: That instrument could have been constructed in the 19th century. Not the 20th century but the 19th century.
Shuttleworth: It’s sort of a functional minimalism. It would be very hard to break it.
Simonyi: Toward the very end, the retro-rockets fire. They just decrease the speed just by the tiniest amount. They pause more than fire, and the fire is just this white flash. But they fire right next to the side windows. And you can see this white flash and little bubbles, little globs of unburned propellant that go every which way.
Shuttleworth: I was intensely focused on the periscope, and after we docked, I looked out my window and suddenly the radiators and solar panels show up. There’s this bloody great structure there, and it’s very dramatic. You dock with the sun behind you, so it’s very, very stark, and everything around it is completely black. It’s very stunning, very space, and very cool.
Garriott: There’s this iridescent, orange-ish glow from the solar panels that’s just not captured in photographs.
Olsen: I remember we were right on target.
Garriott: The docking cone is designed to where you can be off target by even up to half a meter, really, and it will funnel you into the correct docking.
Ansari: They open the hatch toward the Soyuz first.
Olsen: Our hatch won’t open. Our commander is pulling and pulling … finally we put our feet on it. “One, two, three, heave. One, two, three, heave.” It won’t budge. I’m thinking, “All the training and money, and now we can’t get the door open. We’re going to have to go home.” Then, finally, we cracked it.
Ansari: At that moment [the crew of the ISS] opens their door–to see how you look. If I was still sick, they didn’t want to put me in front of the camera and embarrass me.
Simonyi: We shaved beforehand, put on clean flight suits.
Olsen: When we drifted into the ISS, the first thing I did was hit my head on the ceiling. This was on Moscow television.
Shuttleworth: On the one hand, it’s kind of festive and welcoming, and then on the other, it’s kind of, “Shift over here to the camera and talk to the outside world.”
Olsen: One tradition is they ring the bell. The first commander of the ISS was a navy guy, so he brought a ship’s bell up to the ISS. Every time someone new came on, he’d ring the bell. Then the Russians have this tradition of giving you bread and salt when you arrive. Station commander Sergei Krikalyov gave us the bread and salt. I was awed just to be around him. He said, “How are you, Greg?” and gave me a big hug.
For the space tourists, there’s not much to do aboard the ISS. They generally occupy themselves by taking snapshots, checking e-mail, and phoning home. Richard Garriott shot a sci-fi film starring his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts. And everyone on board spends a surprising amount of time simply looking for things.
Olsen: After we docked, shook hands, and said hello, there was about an hour when we could just sort of wander around.
Shuttleworth: When I was up there, there were, depending on how you count the nodes, five or six modules. They reach the size of a caravan. Some are larger, some smaller. The most interesting pieces are sort of off axis. There’s a primary axis, which runs from the Russian habitation module through the storage module, through the American lab. And there were two things that hung off that. One was the docking module, and the other was what they call the front porch: the U.S. airlock.
Garriott: They gave me a little workstation near the ham radio in the service module and a little fold-down desk with a laptop on it, and I was like, “Wow, they’ve set me up in the middle of everyone else’s business. I’m going to be constantly in people’s way. It’s going to be hard to film.”
Simonyi: The commander tells you where you will stay, and in fact they gave me a bag for my stuff. I stuffed all my things in it and used the drawstring to secure it and attached it to the wall. Your home is basically invisible.
Ansari: I picked out a spot next to the window in the docking compartment. They told me that it was going to be cold and noisy. I said, “It doesn’t matter–I want to be next to a window.” They let me be there, and then they gave me this piece of cloth and the commander said, “Whenever you want privacy, just hang this, and we’ll know not to come over.” That made a nice private room for me.
Olsen: It’s a lot like camping. Backpacking, actually.
Ansari: Cleaning yourself is an ordeal. There is no shower aboard the space station. You have these wet towels and dry towels that you use every day to wipe yourself, and a package with your personal toiletries up there–basically, your comb, your toothbrush, and whatever else they allow you to take up there.
Shuttleworth: I took a camera.
Simonyi: I took a paper tape of one of the first programs I ever wrote, and my passport.
Shuttleworth: That’s quite a big tradition with the Russians. They have a stamp made for each ISS mission. People take postcards and envelopes and get them franked up there.
Olsen: I took an iPod, lots of photographs. My iPod, I had everything from opera to rock ‘n’ roll on there.
Garriott: I had a good friend, who writes the Dragonlance series of books for the company that makes Dungeons and Dragons, write me a screenplay. The story is basically that my mother had snuck up [to the space station] on the supply vehicle.
Ansari: The unmanned cargo mission that goes up before the manned flight takes some of your clothing, some of your food, a package that has your personal toiletries. But I wasn’t supposed to be a primary member–Dice-K was. They said that they had changed it at the last minute, but when I got up there, the packages that they had sent up were still Dice-K’s packages. I had his shaving cream, a razor, cologne, and things like that. They didn’t have any of the things that I could use except for the toothbrush and the toothpaste. Fortunately, I took some stuff with me. I didn’t have to wear his underwear.
Olsen: I had a little camera that I lost because I put it in my pocket and forgot to close the zipper.
Shuttleworth: The only thing I can recall going awry was breaking my camera up there. It was after hours and I was trying to get a night shot, and I put the memory card in the wrong way around or something. That was very frustrating.
Ansari: I was always losing things. I would write something, then put the pen down, forgetting that the pen would float off the table. I lost my lipstick, my lip gloss.
Shuttleworth: Eventually, you learn to stick and then cover pretty much anything. Everything has Velcro on it. You want to make sure there are at least two points of attachment for anything that you happen to be working with.
Garriott: I had everything in bags within bags, Velcroed and zip-tied and rubber-banded.
Simonyi: When something goes drifting, it’s very difficult to find. On Earth, when you lose something, you look on the floor. Here, you can’t. You are looking at everything, and there is just stuff everywhere. It could be anywhere. Behind anything.
Shuttleworth: You’d often come across someone looking for something, and it would be floating just behind their head.
Simonyi: The space station is so messy. Words don’t do justice. It’s like going into the messiest hardware store you have ever seen–which only has one of everything somewhere in its inventory, okay? Try to find it–it’s going to take you a while.
Shuttleworth: There are something like 17,000 pieces of loose equipment up there. You’d think that everything is documented, that everything has its fixed place, as it were. But it’s just too big and complex for that.
Garriott: It is cluttered, but then after a while you realize, well, that’s true if you’re thinking in 2-D, but once your brain shifts to 3-D, you realize that it isn’t. I’d be in the middle of filming, on camera in this fairly tight space, and people would cross the floor or the ceiling and not be bothering me at all, or vice versa.
Simonyi: If you leave something on the table, and then your worldview changes, now your wall becomes your floor. You don’t automatically know where to look for the thing that you left on the table. It’s like being in a different space. You don’t necessarily recognize it. You can easily get disoriented.
Shuttleworth: Your body very strongly wants a sense of what’s up and what’s down, but those concepts are meaningless. What’s interesting is that at some level, you maintain a sense of where the earth is. That’s when you were most conscious of actually floating, because it felt like you were floating along horizontally. It wasn’t so magical, but then being able to turn around and then dive into what felt like a well–the docking module, which was dropped down to Earth–that was pretty radical. Whereas the other piece off at an angle was the airlock, which was oriented off to the right, as it were, as you were moving down the very galaxy toward the U.S. end of the station. I had a good relationship with NASA, so there wasn’t any sort of artificial constraint on where I was supposed to go and not supposed to go, which would have been weird.
Simonyi: I had an arrangement with NASA: I could call friends from space. Fantastic.
Olsen: The phone service is limited. It depends on where you are in relation to the communication satellites. But I would say on the average we only had maybe 10 minutes an hour. I was very conscious of the cosmonauts who’d been away from home for six months. In my opinion, they had priority over me, so I tried to be very respectful of their time.
Simonyi: It’s a big deal for the astronauts and cosmonauts. The Russian space agency made the same deal; the cosmonauts could use those sort of Americanized assets. We have a headset plugged into a normal PC, and you go into Skypeand you use the Skypeinterface.
Garriott: My first call was to my mother. The next call was to my girlfriend, Kelly, and her daughter. And then finally I made a call to the mayor of the city of Austin.
Olsen: With e-mail, NASA would only let addresses through that I already preapproved. I gave them a list of a hundred.
Simonyi: The thing about the e-mail is that–and you know, it’s kind of sad–it had to be vetted by NASA. They worry about product promotion. And in fact, at one point I was writing a blog entry from the station, saying, “Wow, the champagne [on launch day] wasn’t that great. The next time I will bring Dom Pérignon”–which I will. It was kind of a joke. I mean, I completely forgot. And so they caught it. To me it just seems so petty, so unnecessary. Is that what Mr. Spock is going to do? Explore new worlds and new civilizations and worry about whether somebody accidentally says “Dom Pérignon”? I mean, come on!
For working astronauts and cosmonauts, every minute of every day on the ISS is scheduled, so mealtimes are the one chance that the space tourists get to really interact with the natives.
Shuttleworth: We took turns making dinner. It was lovely.
Ansari: We had brought some fresh tomatoes and a few fresh fruits, and it was sort of a celebration.
Olsen: In general it’s kind of like backpacking food. But the NASA shrimp cocktails were really good.
Simonyi: There’s only one place to eat on the space station, which is in the Russian segment. That’s where the heater is, the food heater. An oven, if you will.
Garriott: The galley table is covered with spoons that are standing up like trees, because they put double-sided tape on the table. You can just tap the bottom end of your spoon handle on the table and it sticks there. That’s one of the first lessons, the three-dimensional use of space.
Ansari: [Dinner] was my favorite time on board the station, because during the day, everyone is busy. This is the only chance you get to sit–of course, not sit, because there are no chairs to sit on–to float around the table and talk. For me, it was really great to debate some of my beliefs. Advertising, for example: What’s wrong with it? I know especially NASA is dead against that, and I was arguing with some of them about it. “So what if you have a can of Coke here?” I asked. We had long arguments. I found them very interesting.
Garriott: It’s very difficult to put six around the little dinner table. The dinner table is usually full with four or five people right-side up. Then one or two people the other way, using the ceiling as the floor.
Ansari: One of the first nights I was there, [the commander] asked me to pass the bread to him, because it was next to where I was standing. I took the bread and handed it to him. He was like, “No, that’s not the way they do it in space. You have to throw it.” I was like, “They told me not to throw food at anyone.” “But you’re not on Earth, you’re in space. You have to throw it. You take the whole fun out of it, the way you do it.”
Simonyi: Yeah, that’s fun. Especially in the beginning, we kind of told our stories and reflected on what we were doing.
Garriott: I am here to tell you that one of the most common discussions amongst astronauts who live and work in space is the finer points of how to work with the life support systems, particularly the toilets. The Russian toilet actually works the best.
Olsen: [My doctor] asked me all the questions: “We got your heartbeat, any problems?” Blah, blah, blah. Third day, fourth day came: “You go yet, Greg?” “No.” The fifth day: “No.” He said, “Don’t worry. World record is 14 days. You’ll never beat it.” It took me six days to go.
Garriott: A lot of people get constipated up there. But even if you don’t, you are still going with very, very, low frequency. In my 12 days in space, I had to use the rest room three times.
Olsen: I remember we had this long conversation about what we were going to do when we got back. I was more enthralled with “Hey, I’m in space.” But [Commander] Krikalyov and John Phillips [the NASA science officer] had been in space for six months now. They’re getting really anxious. I remember Phillips said, “I just want beer and pizza. That would be it for me.” Krikalyov joined in and said, “I just want to have a coffee, but not this crap we have here. I want the kind of coffee that I could hold to my nose and smell.”
Simonyi: The returning crews are anxious to return. We were delayed by two days. They were up there for more than six months. I was celebrating: two extra days! And these guys were all, “Oh my God, I was supposed to be back. I was dreaming about this day, and now I have to wait two more days!”
Garriott: [My movie] begins with my actual departure from the space station with people waving. “Bye-bye, Richard, bye-bye.” Then it goes to “Wow, man, I’m sure glad we got rid of that guy–all he would ever talk about is video games. Ultima this, Tabula Rasa that. Whew, glad he’s gone.” And after a bit of humorous life on board, they determine that there’s too much oxygen being used for the number of crew that are currently on the station. So they believe an alien is on board, and they go searching for it, and instead they find my mother.
The flight back to Earth takes three and a half hours from undocking to landing, and on the way down, the Soyuz sheds two of its three sections. Both the service module, with its solar panels and communication equipment, and the habitation module (or “living room”) burn up in the atmosphere. The heat-shielded reëntry module, containing the cosmonauts, deploys a succession of parachutes and retro-rockets to slow the spacecraft before impact.
Garriott: Packing up is a sad time. When you say your good-byes, they try to do that live on camera, and then they rush you off and undock quickly, for safety reasons. So it’s really kind of a rushed and harried good-bye, which is really quite tearful.
Shuttleworth: I thought the flight down was the best bit of the whole thing. Just from the physics perspective, it’s very dynamic. The launch is kind of sterile: you’re 15 meters away from the engines, which is where all the action is. On the return, by contrast, the vehicle blows itself up and separates into all these pieces. And then this tiny little piece that has you in it comes straight back into the atmosphere with fireworks going off all around it. So you’re in the thick of it.
Olsen: Remember that to land, the Soyuz is only one-third the size of what it is when it’s launched, and most of the cargo space is missing. It has to be packed very carefully, because the mass distribution affects some of the aerodynamic characteristics of the Soyuz. It has to be done by the commander. This is the sort of thing we really want to help out on, but all you can do is stand by and watch, because it is a one-man thing, and it has to be done very carefully.
Simonyi: The living room is packed up with garbage so it will be burned up on return. The garbage bags are these rubberized bags that are closed with rubber rings just like the space suit–pretty much hermetically sealed.
Olsen: We put our space suits on, got in, and couldn’t quite adjust the pressures between the habitat module, which is docked, and the docking compartment. For an hour we kept adjusting, and they finally said, “All right, let’s go with it.”
Simonyi: There’s always pressure-integrity checks. It seems like that’s all we do on the spacecraft: check pressure integrity. There’s a very important instrument, a manometer–essentially a barometer, but for low pressure. It measures all the pressure on the spacecraft. It’s big and brass, and it has these pipes that connect to everything. Again, it could literally have been constructed in the 19th century.
Olsen: Anyway, on our descent, we noticed that the pressure was dropping. We still don’t know what happened, but some people think that a half-inch strap was lodged in the O-ring seal.
Simonyi: There was a valve that didn’t close–it’s anyone’s guess why–and when the pressures dropped, these garbage bags started to explode. Can you imagine the mess? Oh my God!
Olsen: Finally Commander Krikalyov says, “Olsen, kislorod,” which means “oxygen.” I had to reach over to the oxygen valve. It’s really difficult, because the valve is spring loaded. I held it open for about a minute, and finally the pressure came up to where it should be. But the problem now is that I’m enriching the air with oxygen. The normal air is roughly 21 percent oxygen. We got up to about 32 percent. If we reach 40 percent the cabin automatically depressurizes, because more than 40 percent oxygen tends to get spontaneous combustion.
Ansari: In most cases, something goes wrong.
Shuttleworth: The Soyuz is designed in a way where it has a very graceful degradation if things fail. Big chunks of subsystems can fail, and you can still make it home.
Simonyi: The critical point is when the three segments of the spacecraft separate and two segments are left to burn up.
Garriott: Separation really has three noises associated with it. First there is a kind of “pop” noise, which is a preseparation event–a disconnect of cables of some kind, or pipes. Then there is a pop where the habitationmodule is separated from in front of you. You can feel that force push you directly back with a nice, clean, smooth, directed-back movement. Another pop, and we separated from the instrument compartment. You can just feel if it’s clean. Pop, pop, pop.
Simonyi: I could actually see parts of the spacecraft floating by the window. We were going Mach 20 or 22 in, like, the thinnest of thin air, but it was enough to make a sizable piece of insulation that was torn off by the separation kind of flap next to us. It was kind of slapping us in the wind, left and right. Then it hit our wall, and it kind of flew away.
Ansari: There was this orange glow, with sparks and things.
Simonyi:It looks like Pepto-Bismol. It’s this solid pink plasma.
Garriott:It’s like being on the inside of a blast furnace.
Ansari: Looking out the window, I blurted out, “My God, it feels like I’m riding a shooting star!”
Olsen:All of a sudden things start vibrating, and you can feel the deceleration. We get about four and a half G’s, and it becomes hard to breathe. The capsule is being tossed around. There’s no radio contact. You just kind of have to go through it.
Simonyi:It was getting dark, but in fact it was the window burning up that caused the darkness. The window has like three panes, and the outside pane is made to burn off a bit.
Shuttleworth: You’re on your back, spinning around, and the G force is building up, and your vehicle is ablating away. It’s intense. You’ve got to focus on the G forces building up.
Simonyi:The G forces are substantial but much easier to take than the G forces fighter pilots take, because it is through a different axis of your body. It’s not down to your feet, but through your body, back and forth.
Garriott:The next big event is the opening of the drag chute, which can get a bit rough and tumble. Then when the main parachute opens, it’s kind of like being at the end of a whip that has been cracked. Debris begins to scatter through the capsule even if it is really held down. Lots of projectiles.
Simonyi: I was entrusted to carry all the books, because the bookshelf was full of scientific stuff. Nobody seemed to be worried that I was carrying these books through impact.
Garriott:We were all in space suits with helmets closed, so we were all quite well protected.
Simonyi: Ten meters per second is your terminal velocity. Basically, you’re running into a brick wall at 25 miles per hour.
Ansari: I thought it was going to be hard, but I never thought it was going to be this hard. The impact was shocking. You hit the ground so hard that the impact stops the blood flow. It felt like thousands of needles ran through my back.
Olsen:We bounced, we rolled a bit, we made some radio contact. We were instructed to wait for the search-and-rescue people. The next thing I know, I hear some banging on the capsule. They’re just letting us know, “Hey, we’re here.”
Shuttleworth: You have to wait for the capsule to cool down. We were kind of impatient, so we opened up our visors.
Ansari: It gets really hot inside the capsule while you’re coming down. You’re hot and sweaty inside your space suits, and the whole experience really makes you feel disoriented. You’re not used to gravity. You feel heavy. You can barely move.
Shuttleworth: The three of us were kind of staring out with our eyes wide open, smiling and looking at the hatch. In the impact, a whole spadeful of dirt had basically gone onto the hatch. And as they opened the hatch, we all got a face full of dirt. Sort of, “Welcome back to Earth.” It was very funny.
Olsen: They just cut all the straps with knives, pulled us out, and put us in chairs.
Garriott: Even just 10 days in space and you really do lose the ability to really even stand up properly.
Ansari: It sort of reminded me of being born again.
Olsen: It was like when you graduate from college. You have this wonderful feeling of accomplishment. I really felt good about myself in a serene, secure way, not in an egotistical or bragging way, but just, “Wow.”
Garriott: In training, you learn who has made what mistakes. And so you realize that if you make a mistake, your name will be used in association with that mistake for training for the rest of the history of the Russian space program.
Olsen: “Thank God I didn’t screw up.” That was my first thought when we landed, honestly.
Garriott: People have powered on or off things they shouldn’t. Radios have been misconfigured. The toilet has been abused.
Simonyi: So anyway, we are in Kazakhstan, and then we take the helicopter to the airport, and then we take the plane back to Star City. I didn’t take a bath that night. I just went to bed.
Olsen: First thing I did was have a shower. A shower and a shit, if you’ll excuse me. Then I went back home. Now I look up and say, “Hey, there are my buddies, just floating up there.”
Ansari: You’re out there in space looking back at Earth, and in a way, you’re also looking back at your life, yourself, your accomplishments. Thinking about everything you own, love, or care for, and everything else that happens around the world. Thinking bigger picture. Thinking in a more global fashion.
Simonyi: I don’t think the purpose of spaceflight is to make better people. Because it will somehow change you or change your life–those are not the right reasons to go to space.
Garriott: I would agree with that, in principle.
Shuttleworth: For everybody, a year of your life in some odder circumstance is going to change you. That’s kind of human nature. It’s hard to put a finger on how, exactly.
Olsen: It’s a life-changing experience in a subtle way. I mean, I’m not hugely spiritual or anything like that, but it’s so much more than the flight. You make lifetime friends.
Simonyi: For example, Sergei [Krikalyov] is an amazing guy. I mean, he is so smart and so athletic. He’s just a wonderful guy to be with, and so multifaceted. People don’t appreciate how many people have flown multiple times. The top 10 people have 60 missions among them–six apiece.
Garriott: On the American side, I began to have what I’ll call intellectual discussions about experiments and designs and things [with the astronauts]. I have some ideas for even some contemporary NASA research. In fact, they are truly doing some research based upon an idea I proposed. That really made me feel good, because I realized that even in the engineering aspects, I could play with them. Participate like I’m their equal, if you know what I mean.
Simonyi: Experienced people just do so much better in space than rookies.
In October, Simonyi exercised his $5 million option to buy a return ticket to the ISS. He is scheduled to fly this spring.
Adam Fisher writes about science and travel. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York, and Wired.