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Paradigm Shift for Space Tourism

Now that Dennis Tito has taken to orbit, spaceflight is closer for us all

by Michelle Evans


How many of us can tell the exact moment when they knew their dreams would come true? We may have felt them floating around in our heads for years, but then on one mysteriously clear moment, it all comes together and we know that our dream may actually become reality.


For me, that moment arrived on Saturday April, 28, 2001. On television, I watched the launch of the first true citizen space traveler, or to be more colloquial, the first space tourist. We have all been following the progress of Dennis Tito as he worked and trained to do what we were finally seeing him accomplish.


It was at that moment, when the Soyuz booster sprang to life, that everything changed. A profound shift, a paradigm, had occurred; the world would never be the same. I could feel it in my heart and in my head. This was the time I had been waiting for almost all of my life; the moment when I knew that it would finally be possible for anyone to go into space.


Sure, the price was way too steep for my meager resources, but the same was true earlier this century when only the rich could afford to buy a plane ticket to fly across the country. Once paying passengers began to fly, it was just a matter of time until ticket prices reached the level where it was within the grasp of pretty much everyone who wanted it. Dennis has now started that process with regard to spaceflight for the rest of us.


Dennis Tito can also know the date when he knew his dreams would happen. It was at the annual meeting of the Space Tourism Society on December 2, 1999.


John Spencer organized the event, and two STS members, Hank Murdoch and Mike Eastwood, invited their friend Dennis to attend. Late in the meeting, Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, walked in to make an important announcement. Those of us in that meeting were the first to officially hear the news that a company called MirCorp had been formed, and they would be soliciting people to pay for rides to the Mir Space Station.


I knew that this was a great idea, but, of course, I also knew that I would never be in the league to buy a ticket for that price. Dennis was there, and he heard the announcement, knowing that he could be the one to afford the first private ride into space.

All arrangements were made, but then Mir was splashed into the South Pacific, so that ride was off. The Russians were not to be put off and new plans were laid to place Dennis on the next available seat to the International Space Station.


But the rocky ride was far from over as NASA Administrator Dan Goldin got into the act of doing whatever he could to stop the flight. In the end, the Russians basically thumbed their noses at NASA and Dennis was off for his jaunt in space.


What a day to see it finally happen. There were great doses of disbelief until that moment of launch. Then two days later, the Soyuz docked and Dennis floated into the ISS, proclaiming, “I love space.”


His flight ended on May 5, but his feet were still 240 miles above the Earth. Just days later, Dennis returned home to Southern California on May 9. The room set aside for his greeting at Los Angeles International Airport, was packed to overflowing with media, family, friends, business associates, along with many members of both the Orange County Space Society and the Space Tourism Society.


When Dennis arrived, Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan told the assembled crowd, “The first thing that happened as we came off the plane was Customs came to us and they stamped ‘Earth’ on his passport!”


What a homecoming. Dennis summed it all up with, “I found that eight days in space is the most unique experience a human can have.”


He then went on to talk about his feelings for space travel, specifically geared toward the non-professional astronaut.


“I would like to encourage NASA,” Dennis began, “to include in their seven-passenger shuttle flights, maybe one seat with a private individual, who represent various creative aspects of our culture: poets, philosophers, reporters, teachers. I mean we could name a list of a hundred different people, and think [what would happen] over the next 10 or 15 years if a hundred people who are private citizens who were able to experience what I experienced, and believe me it is unbelievable, it would bring this into our culture. We should have space as part of our culture. This is the space age, this is the 21st Century, ironically, 2001.”

Dennis wants to open space. “I would like to have a role in the years ahead in creating an opportunity to fly people into space at a much lower cost,” he told the crowd.


These are hardly the words of someone who went on a multi-million-dollar joyride. These are the words of someone who wants to create the new paradigm that I felt at the moment he lifted off the Earth.


Pam Leestma of OCSS was there to watch his arrival. She told me, “The teacher in me wanted people to not forget that the bigger picture here is Tito had a dream!”


The future is no longer what NASA has striven to protect, it is what we want the future to become.


“I started out a poor kid. I loved space from the very beginning. I followed my passion. That’s one of the great things about this country. My parents were Italian immigrants. They started with nothing and here I am able to achieve a life’s dream.”