Press Release

Testimony by Dennis Tito before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

By SpaceRef Editor
June 26, 2001
Filed under , ,

“Expanding the dream of human space flight”

by Dennis A. Tito

Written Testimony Prepared for

The United States House of Representatives

Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

Hearing on “Space Tourism”

2318 Rayburn Building

Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Gordon and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, I am honored to have been asked to testify before you today. I hope that my testimony will bring a unique perspective with regard to the United States space program and our ability to work cooperatively with Russia and our other partners in the International Space Station (ISS).

It is my understanding that during today’s hearing the members of the subcommittee are interested in reviewing the issues and opportunities for flying non-professional astronauts in space, the appropriate governmental role for supporting the nascent space tourism industry, use of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station for tourism, safety and training criteria for space tourists and the potential commercial market for space tourism.

More specifically, I have been asked to address the following:

  • My experiences preparing for the mission and overall observations on board the ISS as a visitor;

  • The benefit of space travel and its value to society;

  • My observations of the Russian space program and opportunities for an improved partnership, particularly on the ISS.

I am happy to address all of the aforementioned topics, but do ask that testimony that goes beyond a retelling of my personal experience be considered that of a non-expert in human space flight.

Pursuing A Dream

My interest in space travel began with the launch of Sputnik when I was teenager and grew with the U.S.- Soviet space race. Given that my father was a working class Italian immigrant, looking back it may have seemed foolish for me to one day dream of going into space, but I just knew space flight was something I had to experience. I also knew that my parents had come to the United States because it was a country where, if you set high goals and worked hard to achieve them, anything was possible. On April 28, 2001, 40 years after the first manned space flight, I was able to prove that my mother and father were right. A boy from Queens could fly in space. My only regret is that they did not live long enough to see my dream become a reality.

Focused on my desire to participate in the U.S. space program, I earned a B.S. in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU College of Engineering and a M.S. from Renssalaer in Engineering Science. I began my career as an aerospace engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the age of 23. While serving at JPL, I was responsible for designing the trajectories for several Mariner spacecraft missions to Mars and Venus. I left to pursue a career in investment management and today serve as Chief Executive Officer of Wilshire Associates Incorporated, a leading provider of investment management, consulting and technology services. Despite my career change, I never lost my fascination with space, my commitment to our nation’s space program, or my dream that one day I might go there myself. Indeed, it was that career move that eventually enabled me to achieve my dream.

Because it is currently impossible for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to fly civilians on the Space Shuttle, I was excited to learn last year that the Russian government was receptive to citizens flying into space for a fee. My original intention was to fly to Mir, but that hope was dashed when it was determined that the Russian station needed to be de-orbited. Officials of the Russian Space Agency and the company RSC Energia then approached me about my possible interest in flying to the ISS on the April 2001 taxi mission. After much consideration, in January I signed a contract to do so.

Training as an American Cosmonaut

Last summer, in pursuit of my dream, I left my business, family and home in California and moved into a two-room flat in Star City, a Russian military base outside of Moscow, where I lived a fairly Spartan existence, dedicating myself to my training. The comprehensive training program I completed closely mirrored that of any Russian cosmonaut engineer.

In total, my training encompassed approximately 800 hours of instruction and practice and ranged from emergency and evacuation procedures and basic life support and engineering systems, to simulations of ascent and descent and zero gravity, to housekeeping chores and taking care of personal hygiene needs. I should note here that my detailed technical training not only covered the Soyuz, but also the Russian-built elements of ISS – Zarya, the functional cargo block or FGB, and Zvezda, the service module – as well as their subsystems. Of course, because of the nature of my flight, I would like to note that I was trained as a passenger, not as someone expected to take the controls of the Soyuz.

As a “graduate” of the Russian cosmonaut training system, I was fully confident when the engines were ignited on the launch pad in Kazakhstan that I would be able to handle whatever might happen on my flight. In fact, my training prepared me so well that my heartbeat never went above 72 beats per minute during ascent, and I was able to track to the second the sequence of events from our launch until reaching orbit.

I believe that it is a testament to my training that after just a few hours in space, I fully adapted to weightlessness. I was able to assist the crew in housekeeping chores like food sorting and preparation. I have to admit, though, that the training that prepared me for sorting food took place in college when I hand sorted mail at the U.S. Post Office near Penn Station in New York City.

There was one thing not even the most extensive training could prepare me for: the awe and wonder I felt at seeing our beautiful Earth, the fragile atmosphere at its horizon and the vast blackness of space against which it was set. Just imagine being able to watch 16 sunrises and sunsets each day. And, thanks to a team of generous Ham radio operators and the crew on the ISS, I was able to connect more clearly with my sons down on Earth than I had previously when we were face-to-face.

As any one of the 400 plus people who have traveled to space will tell you, no amount of training can prepare one for the experience of weightlessness and the freedom of effortless movement. It remains something that’s still hard to describe to others. I can say that you get a sense of total relaxation. The nights I slept in space were the best nights’ sleep I’ve had since I was a baby.

ISS Observations

With regard to my observations as a visitor aboard the ISS, I want to remind the subcommittee that mine are the opinions of someone trained for my taxi flight mission, but certainly not those of an expert. I say without hesitation, however, that anyone associated with the development of the ISS has every right to be extremely proud. As it orbits our Earth, the ISS serves as tangible proof that men and women from diverse backgrounds and cultures — even former adversaries — can accomplish great things when we work together in a cooperative spirit for the betterment of all humankind. This subcommittee deserves much of the credit for this stellar achievement. You have repeatedly taken the lead in supporting the ISS, even when that required providing a not-so-gentle guiding hand.

Anyone who hasn’t been to the ISS or toured full sized mock-ups of it cannot possibly have a full appreciation of how large it really is. End to end it is already roughly 150 feet long. When it is completed, the ISS will be almost 300 feet long with its solar panels spanning over 350 feet. The ISS is so large and well-integrated that it is simply amazing to realize that it was built in pieces at different places on Earth, launched into space by different rockets, and assembled more than 200 miles above us. It is truly a triumph of humanity and technology.

I spent most of my time in Zvezda, the Service Module, where I listened to opera, shot video and stereographic photos of the Earth out of the porthole, helped prepare food and talked with the crew during meals. The U.S. Destiny laboratory module is dedicated to science and not yet fully operational, so after a tour and briefing on safety procedures, there was not really a reason for me to spend time there.

The three of us on the Soyuz taxi flight slept in Zarya, the FGB, each creating a temporary berth in a third of its space. ISS Commander Yuri Usachev and James Voss each had a berth in Zvezda, and Susan Helms had chosen a nook in Destiny as her part-time bedroom.

The crew on ISS works very hard, but most of their time is spent simply carrying out the day-to-day logistics of keeping the station functioning. Air filters have to be replaced. Computers need to be monitored and sometimes repaired. Supplies have to be inventoried and stowed.

My observation –was that the crew lacked enough time to do as much science as they wanted. In fact, I understand that NASA testified to the full Science Committee in March that currently the crew was spending just 20 hours per week on science. In fact, I was told by one crewmember that even less time was being spent on science.

It would appear that the only way significant time can be dedicated to scientific experiments aboard the ISS is if the crew size is doubled, as was originally planned. I understand that cost overruns and budget constraints have forced us to keep the crew size at three for the foreseeable future. But, if the true mission of the ISS is to foster scientific research, we cannot expect it to succeed unless and until the crew size is increased to six.

I can tell you that my Soyuz crewmates and I had plenty of room to spread out and berth in Zarya. Furthermore, the atmospheric life support systems on Zvezda are capable of supporting both a regular crew of three plus the three visiting cosmonauts from a Soyuz swap-out flight. Throughout my visit we never had to use the supplemental oxygen canisters or other such mechanisms.

What this means is that we could transition to a six person crew fairly quickly. We would have to purchase an additional two Soyuz flights per year to have a full crew rescue capability, and carry up additional food, water, and other supplies. Also, we’d have to use the Soyuz missions to swap crew as well as spacecraft, rather than conducting “taxi” flights, since the ISS currently cannot support a crew of six plus three visitors.

By doubling the crew size sooner we can free up much more time for actual research on the ISS, and hopefully speed up progress towards growing the ISS even further.

As I stated, this is not my area of expertise and I realize there might be logistical, re-supply and psychological implications that might need to be addressed, but I do think it’s an alternative that merits NASA’s and your consideration.

Spreading the Benefits of Space Travel to Society

In my opinion, one of the benefits of the ISS and its long-term value to society is to lay the groundwork for us to expand human civilization beyond Earth orbit to the Moon, Mars and other places in our solar system. In other words, we’re not just going to visit: we want to live in space.

In order to do that, we need to learn more about the effects of long duration flight on the human body and psyche. We also need to develop self-sustaining life support systems that will reduce and eventually eliminate the need for re-supply from Earth, allowing us to complete space flights of 1,000 days and more.

As an engineer, I want to suggest that we not just view the ISS as a useful platform for scientific research, but also for the research and development of new technologies that will allow us to live in space for extended periods of time. That, as much as anything else, will create new economic and scientific opportunities for the future.

In the short-term, I believe we need to find ways to include the general public in our human space flight activities. As I have mentioned, it is hard for me to fully convey what it was like to be weightless for eight days. But then again, I’m a businessman. On the other hand, just think of how magnificently poets, writers, musicians, composers, teachers, filmmakers, painters, journalists and other creative individuals would be able to communicate the beauty and inspiration of spaceflight.

Based on the extensive worldwide media coverage and public reaction, it would be fair to say that my taxi flight to the ISS captured the attention and imagination of millions of people around the globe and renewed their interest in human space flight. I’ve found that whether people agree or disagree with my decision to fulfill my 40-year dream the way I did, they are fascinated by my experience. They don’t care so much how I got up there, but what it felt like when I got up there. I keep hearing questions like, how did you put on your socks? Can you wear contacts in space? How do you sleep when you’re floating around?

Back here at home, I believe that the United States should consider re-instituting the Citizen in Space program. There is nothing that intrigues and excites the American public like seeing someone they can relate to achieve and experience great things they consider beyond their reach. Ours is a government of, for and by the people. I think we know that if asked, the American people would say that as horrific as it was, it is time to put the Challenger tragedy behind us and move forward in a positive way that honors those aboard that Shuttle. We need to once again offer our nation’s teachers, journalists, creative artists and others an opportunity to experience what is now the sole bailiwick of fighter or test pilots and scientists. The bottom line is that the American people, who pay for the space program, should have every opportunity to share in it.

A survey by a respected publication, which will not be released until later this summer, found that nearly two-thirds of all Americans believe that NASA should allow citizens to pay to travel to outer space in order to raise funds for space exploration. Since that isn’t an option, I would suggest that we work with the Russians and allow them to send one paying passenger on each available Soyuz taxi mission. While I would agree that passenger criteria need to be put in place, we also need to be careful not to set the bar as high as the standard would be for a Shuttle mission commander, thus eliminating most candidates.

Not only would this system allow for more citizens to experience space and communicate its awe to the rest of us, the amount paid by qualified passengers would represent a significant portion — up to one-fifth — of the entire budget of the Russian Space Agency. It is clearly in our interest to ensure that the Russian space community has the money it needs to continue supporting its portion of the ISS. This is one of the best ways to do that.

Speaking of the economics of paying passengers, although the terms of my contract prevent me from divulging the exact amount I paid for my flight, I can tell you that it was money well spent — by both the Russians and myself. The average Russian working in their space program makes about $100 per month. I can safely say that in a roundabout way I am responsible for the paychecks of 10,000 Russian aerospace workers for more than one year. These are the production line workers responsible for assembling the Soyuz spacecraft and the Progress supply vehicle, which are both critical to the ISS. Without them, no crews could stay on the ISS and it would become a ghost town in orbit.

As I have said on many occasions, it’s my hope that as a result of my flight I will be able to combine my interest in space and my investment expertise to further the advancement of space commercialization. As you know, with the sole exception of communications satellites, to date the investment community has been apathetic, at best, to this idea. My ultimate goal is to build a much wider understanding and support in the business world for the goals espoused in NASA’s Human Exploration and Development of Space Enterprise. Most importantly for our space program, I intend to be an advocate in the national and international financial community to encourage long-term utilization of and investment in space.

Observations of the Russian Space Program

During my time in Star City I got to know many of the cosmonauts and astronauts who were training for missions to the ISS, including members of the crew that was on board when my crew mates and I arrived at the ISS on April 30. All were hard-working and passionately devoted to the space programs of their countries. Overall, the professionalism and dedication of everyone I came into contact during my training — from Mr. Koptev, General Klimuk, and Mr. Semenov, to the engineers, flight directors, medical staff and technicians — were of the highest quality and caliber. There were no corners cut or pages left unturned.

I can specifically report that the Russians have tremendous respect for America generally and NASA specifically. Without giving away any confidences, I can tell you that the cosmonauts have abandoned some of their valued traditions to comply with NASA guidelines for crew behavior. These capable professionals have done this because they respect and want to continue working with NASA.

To be sure, the Russian space program has fallen on hard times along with the rest of their economy, but I believe they are still extremely capable, especially when we don’t have unrealistic expectations about the level of funding their taxpayers can provide to the Russian Space Agency — Rosaviacosmos — and the various private and governmental organizations it oversees. From my perspective the Russians have every right to be very proud of their space program.

Like any American who grew up during the Cold War, I was initially skeptical about doing business with the Russians. I was wrong. At every juncture I found them to be trustworthy, honest and aboveboard with me. The negotiations were tough, but friendly. And once they signed the contract with me in January, despite a change in attitude by our country, they stuck to their convictions and faced down great pressure. At no time did I observe them acting unilaterally. Just as we do not allow the Russians to approve our Shuttle crews, they did not feel we had a right to select the crew for a Soyuz taxi flight.

Perhaps my experience reflects what President George W. Bush encountered during his recent meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin. After that meeting President Bush said, “Can I trust him? I can.”

I wholeheartedly agree with our President that is time to put mistrust and suspicion behind us and move forward in constructive and respectful ways that benefit both Russia and our nation. I also agree with his assertion that “Russia has got great mathematicians and engineers who can just as easily participate in the high-tech world as American engineers and American mathematicians.”

Now is the time to step back and, without casting blame, think clearly about our partnership with the Russian space program. There is no doubt that the Russians have tremendous technical and operational capabilities for long-duration space flight. But by presuming their economy could afford to fully fund their participation in ISS, we pretended that Russia could be an independent partner, just like the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan. The reality, however, is that the Russian space industry has to be self-financing. So our partnership with Russia must become a commercial and economic one, rather than a political or bureaucratic one.

Looking Beyond the Horizon

All of the partners in the ISS should be proud because together we are building the first permanent human settlement above our planet. ISS is important to me, and should be important to all Americans, because it is our first foothold in space, our first enduring step in humanity’s expansion beyond its cradle on Earth. In the future, ISS will be judged based on whether it enabled our civilization to slowly grow upward and outward into the “neighborhood” of our solar system, in the process opening up an endless frontier to generations to come.

That grand future — and not mere scientific knowledge, new technologies, or even economic return — is why the International Space Station is worth the political debates, technical challenges, and cost overruns we have endured to get this far. But achieving that future will require transcending those problems to “open up” the ISS. We can begin to do that by re-instituting our Citizen in Space program. Another step is to not just allow, but encourage the Russians to sell the third seat on Soyuz taxi missions to individuals who meet criteria agreed upon in advance.

Finally, we need to explore issues and opportunities with the Russians like an expanded crew with habitation in the Zarya module and two Soyuz vehicles docked at the station at all times. We need to demonstrate to them that we have confidence in their people and their programs and have no qualms about working with them.

I hope that my testimony today has been helpful. Thank you again for this opportunity. I consider myself blessed to have been able to live in a democratic country where free market capitalism allows any of us with a dream to know that no challenge is too difficult or goal too lofty if you work hard and never lose site of your objective. I stand ready to be helpful where I can and provide constructive input as requested.

SpaceRef staff editor.