One way to look at Dennis Tito’s spring vacation package is that $20 million is a heck of a lot to shell out for a 10-day trip. On the other hand, everything is included: round-trip air fare, lodging, meals and transfers. The locale is exotic, the views are spectacular, and there’s not another tourist in sight.
Watched by sons Brad, 23, and Michael, 26, his ex-wife Suzanne, 56, and girlfriend Dawn Abraham, 40, Tito, a 60-year-old Santa Monica investment banker, blasted off April 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, boldly going where no tourist has gone before: to the International Space Station, which orbits the earth about 240 miles up. “I felt the ground shake,” says Brad, an environmental-design consultant who lives in Prescott, Ariz. “It was intense. I knew he was literally on top of the world.”
Or at least on top of the rocket that hurled the Soyuz TM-32 space craft, with Tito and cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin, into the wild, blue yonder. And although Tito did get motion sickness after liftoff—a hazard of space travel—he soon recovered enough to announce to the world on TV, “I love space.” When the craft docked on Monday he floated with arms outstretched into the space station. “It was a great trip here,” he told the two Americans and one Russian who are the hosts on Soyuz until it heads back to earth on May 5.
It has, however, been a long voyage for Tito, who was bitten with the space bug as a 17-year-old in 1957, when the USSR’s Sputnik was launched. The son of Italian immigrants Anthony and Phyllis, a printer and a seamstress, Tito grew up in Queens, N.Y., before becoming a NASA engineer and helping to design the Mariner interplanetary probes in the 1960s. In 1972, after quitting engineering, he launched the investment firm Wilshire Associates Inc., which now manages $10 billion in assets.
Last August, after extensive negotiations with the Russian space agency, Tito began what would be 900 hours of prep work at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center in Star City, an hour outside Moscow. “There was a lot of physical training to it,” Tito, a 5’5″, 140-lb. fitness buff, said earlier last month. “But as I went through it I evolved and became stronger.”
That left only one major hurdle: NASA, his old employer, didn’t want an amateur anywhere near the $33 billion station, a joint enterprise of the United States and four other nations. Despite support from former astronaut Buzz Aldrin—”He has the knowledge and the dedication, and he deserves this flight,” says Aldrin—NASA officials gave Tito the cold shoulder when he and his Russian teammates arrived in Houston on March 19 for additional training. “They made it very personal,” he said, “like I’m some kind of John Candy character in-plaid Bermuda shorts and white socks—’Here’s this rube going into space, and we’re going to be his babysitters.’ ”
The cash-strapped Russians, however, insisted that he go along on their next visit to the station. “In Russia,” he said, “people in the aerospace industry make $100 a month. So in effect I’m paying the salaries of over 10,000 people for a year. It isn’t like I’m taking the money up in space and shooting it out the hatch.”
On April 24, NASA and the other partners acquiesced, although not before setting some serious ground rules: Anything Tito breaks he pays for, he and his family waive all liability in the event that anything happens to him, and he cannot wander around unescorted in the American segment of the space station.
After eight days on the station, Tito and his teammates will head back to Kazakhstan. Then, after two days of quarantine, he’ll return to Los Angeles and a big party at Wilshire.
Now that he’s getting his chance to view the heavens up close, Tito thinks it’s something everyone should try—and someday may. (Titanic director James Cameron has already expressed his interest in taking a camera into space.) “Ninety years ago,” says Tito, “the only people who flew in airplanes were the rich.” Can in-space movies be far behind?
John Hannah in Los Angeles and Bob Stewart in Houston