May 11: The world’s first paying space tourist is back on earth after a week-long joyride in space. On Sunday, May 6, American millionaire Dennis Tito and two Russian cosmonauts landed back on earth, as their space capsule gently parachuted down onto the barren steppe in Kazakhstan.
Emerging unsteadily from the capsule, the exhilarated 60-year-old Tito, who is also a former NASA rocket scientist, said the trip was the culmination of a lifelong dream.
“It was great, best, best, best of all. It was paradise. I just came back from paradise. Great flight, great landing. A soft landing,” blurted Tito, as he tried to juggle the apple he was handed as part of the traditional Kazakh welcome, reports the Hindu newspaper. The apple tumbled to the ground. “You see I’m used to weightlessness. But I enjoyed this trip. I finally had my dream.”
The dream certainly didn’t come cheap. Tito paid a reported 20 million US dollars to travel to and stay on the International Space Station, a joint US and Russian space program. Throughout his stay on the space station, Tito said he slept like a baby, took snapshots of earth, listened to hours of opera music and did his share of chores. He also kept his distance from the American section of the space station. The Americans had made it clear that Tito would have to pay for anything he breaks.
Even before Tito rocketed into space in the Soyuz TM-32, he found himself in the thick of controversy. NASA scientists accused their Russian counterparts of putting the multi-billion dollar space program at risk by selling a space ticket to Tito.
The Russians argue that they are free to do what they like with their section of the International Space Station. And if they can make up for budget cuts by selling tickets to outer space, then so be it. Outer space is the biggest market yet to be exploited, and the Russians want to be there when the market opens up.
But the Americans are miffed. They now plan to bill their Russians partners for work lost because of “babysitting” Tito safely through his outer space holiday. They point to “patriots” like Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, who took ‘no’ for an answer when they refused his request to be allowed a trip to space.
Tito, they argue, put the space program at risk because his presence distracted scientists working there. The Russians counter that the Americans put up an ‘iron curtain’ in space by not letting Tito anywhere near their section.
The fight continues. For the Russians, who started the space race about 50 years ago, the success of Tito’s holiday in space holds the key to the success of their space program. The program has been perennially short of cash ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
A few more takers for the US 20 million dollar ticket would go a long way in making up for lack of funds. For a former socialist state, a true capitalist solution!