Mr. Tito Comes to Washington – Part 1

By Keith Cowing
May 23, 2001
Filed under

Dennis Tito

SpaceRef Focus On Dennis Tito’s Space Vacation

Looking little worse for wear after running the media gauntlet from Larry King to David Letterman, Dennis Tito made his first post-flight appearance on Capitol Hill. Given all of the acrimony that preceded his flight, the day’s events were surprisingly tame by comparison.

The event was a Space Policy Roundtable on “Human Space Flight and the Private Sector” sponsored by Prospace with assistance from FINDS, the Foundation for the International Non-Governmental Development of Space
, the Space Frontier Foundation, and Bigelow Aerospace.

The speakers included Mark Schlather, Prospace; Rick Tumlinson, Space Frontier Foundation; Dennis Tito, Wilshire Associates; Miles O’Brien, CNN; Richard Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace; Gilmer Capps, Oklahoma State Senate; Pat Dasch, National Space Society; Mike Hawes, NASA Office of Space Flight; Alan Ladwig, To Orbit Productions; Tom Rogers, Space Transporation Association, Eric Anderson, Space Adventures, and Buzz Aldrin, ShareSpace Foundation.

Opening the roundtable, Prospace president Mark Schlather cast Mr. Tito’s flight in terms applicable to other forms of travel – with professional astronauts being “business travelers” while individuals such as Mr. Tito are “Pleasure Travelers.” Schlather took some issue with the term “tourist” as it has been applied to Mr. Tito noting that a number of American politicians were the first space “tourists” – and that Tito was the first individual to pay his own way into space (Sen. Jake Garn, Sen. John Glenn, and Rep. (now Senator) Bill Nelson were all given free rides at taxpayer expense.

Schlather looked forward to more flights such as Tito’s, noting that film director James Cameron hoped to fly in space and become the first media professional to produce a revenue generating film shot on location in space.

Tito in his own words

Dennis Tito described his flight as being a “mission that represented a life long dream – an experience that went well beyond my wildest dreams.” Tito admitted that he went into this mission with doubts forefront in his mind – despite his determination to make it happen. “I was prepared for an Everest-like trek where I’d be sick and miserable all the time. Except for a small bout of space sickness early in the mission, the rest of the trip was a major high.”

The mission itself turned out to be “the most remarkable, thrilling experience I’ve ever had” said Tito. “It was much different than regular life. If people really knew how this feels they’d be lining up to grow. This is a secret that is well kept by those astronauts and professionals that have gone up and who look at it from a day to day perspective.” He said. “I did not have a work schedule – I decided what I was going to do. At one point I decided to volunteer to do some work on the night side of several orbits.” The rest of the time was spent, according to Tito ” floating around listening to opera, looking out the window, and taking pictures.” “I was not at all bored” he said “I could have stayed up there for months.”

Earlier SpaceRef Stories:

  • Earth’s First Self-Financed Astronaut (Tito Interview)

  • Dennis Tito Begins His Space Vacation

  • Dennis Tito’s Space Vacation is GO

  • NASA Holds Press Conference on the Dennis Tito Issue

  • Dennis Tito’s Flight to Space Station Hits Major Snag – with NASA

  • He cast the experience as being so valuable that “if they told me ahead of time that it would take all the money I have, I’d pay it and live the rest of my life on welfare.” One of the most important parts of the trip was the ham radio discussions Tito had with his children which Tito described as being very special.

    When asked what the American government could or should do to expand space tourism (if indeed it is the role of the government to do so) Tito said simply “based on the news coverage of my flight, the American people are clearly excited.” He went onto say that he feels that there needs to be opportunities for “ordinary citizens to go into space – not just wealthy individuals.” “There is more to space than science.” He said. “This is a human experience – and everyone should experience it – we need to bring space down to the people.”

    Tito was then asked if he had a postflight message to NASA. Tito said “If NASA (and Dan Goldin) hadn’t worked as hard as they did to put together the ISS, I would not have had the wonderful experience, NASA did a terrific job on the ISS – when you are up there you can see just how large and impressive it is.”

    When asked about his determination to fly Tito said ” I was very determined to fly – I was not going to let anything stop me. I just went ahead with my training.” When asked if he knew something might cause the trip to be called off he said ” I was prepared for the possibility that the Russians could stop the flight.”

    Tito was then asked if he thought that travel on a Soyuz, or a Space Shuttle, or a visit to the International Space Station was safe enough for the general public. Tito said “I decided that there was a 99% chance that I would come back. This also means that there was a 1% chance that I would not. To me it was like a game of Russian roulette using a gun with 100 chambers.” I signed all the waivers and knew what the risks were. As long as people have that same expectation, I think it is OK for others to go.”

    A Port Authority for the ISS?

    Next up was Rick Tumlinson, President of the Space Frontier Foundation. Tumlinson opened by suggesting that the experience of spaceflight “was probably a benign environment compared to what he went through to get there.”

    In casting Tito’s trip into perspective, Tumlinson said that this event may well be the point where there was the beginning of a handover between the government control of access to space- and opening up space to regular citizens. Using a historical analogy – one where Lewis and Clark were out exploring the frontier, Tumlinson likened this event to “a tourist boat suddenly circling their canoe.”

    Tumlinson also cast Tito’s presence on the space station by saying “Tito was not on the wrong part of the ISS – it was the astronauts – they should be on their way to Mars.” Tumlinson said that a way must be found to transfer the operation of spacecraft – and space stations – in low earth orbit to the private sector so as to free up NASA to do what it does best explore. He cited events surrounding Tito’s trip i.e. a space traffic control problem, unscheduled guests, and a near meltdown of the ISS international partnership” was things that could be remedied by the creation of an ISS Port Authority.

    Tumlinson reflected back on the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. “Many people told Arthur C. Clarke that he got it wrong back then. Take a look at what the film showed: a passenger takes a commercial flight to a commercial space station and then takes a commercial flight to a mixed use Lunar base while NASA Astronauts set off on a research mission to Jupiter. I think Arthur GOT it right!”.

    One of the things this ISS Port Authority could do is to set fair pricing rates on services on the ISS so as to allow private enterprise to be able to provide services – instead of the bartering arrangement currently in use by the ISS partners which Tumlinson feels serves to prevent more creative operation of the ISS.

    Tumlinson said that there needs to be many space station -each suited to its own particular mission. “Having a space station is not the goal: opening up the frontier is. The ISS is an unfinished government facility. A (space) hotel is a totally different facility to operate than a research lab.”

    Tumlinson spoke of opening the space frontier to all people. To do so requires a way to facilitate their presence- not prevent it. In noting that NASA is preparing a series of requirements for individuals wishing to visit the ISS, Tumlinson said that space advocacy groups and the private sector should be called in “before the standards for visitors are set – rather than afterwards” when a fight over them is certain to erupt.

    In closing, he said “Dennis Tito may be the first to go, but he’s not the only one who wants to go. This is not about engineering, but rather, about the decision people make.”

    The Government’s Role

    Buzz Aldrin spoke next. Aldrin’s message was simple: “We need to reduce the cost to orbit and increase public enthusiasm for space.” He said. He cited Kennedy’s speech to Congress 40 years ago as an example of deciding to do something and then making it happen.

    In citing the lack of progress since those times, Aldrin said “20 years after Gagarin flew, we launched the Space Shuttle. Now, 20 years later, we still fly the Space Shuttle. It now seems that we’ll still be flying the Space Shuttle 20 years from now.” He paused and said “C’mon now – we can do better than that!.”

    How to get more people into space is a vexing problem. Aldrin suggested that something like a space lottery might be the answer. He also suggested that we look at historical precedence – how the government often sought to bootstrap the development of a new mode of transportation.

    Examples included the railroads across the western U.S.; the development of air mail service, and the post war expansion of commercial airlines. One specific example he cited was Boeing’s development of a jet-powered aerial tanker – the KC-135. Boeing told the Air Force at the time that it intended to use the same aircraft to carry commercial passengers. Thus was born the Boeing 707. These dual use approaches are something Aldrin thinks merit further consideration as we expand the number of individuals who can be sent into space.

    Aldrin feels that the people who need to go into space – in addition to astronauts – are professional communicators. His rationale was simple: these communicators can relay the true experience of space flight to the public “you can’t get an astronaut to do it – they just won’t.”

    Aldrin closed by saying that more habitation modules needed to be added to the ISS – but he felt that we should not rely on Italy – or Russia to build them asking “Why do we need to farm this out?”

    Reporters in Space

    Miles O’Brien from CNN spoke next. O’ Brien was up front about his support for a reinstatement of the journalist in space program NASA once ran – and his personal interest in applying to that program. In describing his interest, he spoke of his interactions with veteran space journalist Walter Cronkite during their joint coverage of John Glenn’s Shuttle flight. Cronkite recalled that he always felt that the first non-professional in space should have been a journalist. This eventually changed during Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign when he more or less promised that the first civilian in space aboard a space shuttle would be a teacher.

    Flashing forward to the present, O’Brien noted that “the flood gates have opened thanks to Mr. Tito. Now it is up to NASA – do they want to play – or do they want to watch.”

    O’Brien expressed a common frustration many reporters have with covering NASA’s missions. He said “ISS is a great human story – the ultimate frontier story. We are not getting that story however. NASA is full of engineers who love their toys. This doesn’t really thrill people all that much. Believe me, it is a hard sell to do a story on protein crystals in space.”

    One of the reasons why we are not getting the full story, according to O’Brien is “the white scarf factor”. By this he was referring to the Astronaut Corps [Editor’s note: when I worked at NASA, it was common to make the gesture of tossing a scarf over one’s shoulder (or flipping your tie in a similar fashion) as a non-verbal reference to the Astronaut office.] O’Brien note that it was not in the best interest of astronauts to say anything that might jeopardize their flight status. As such they are very reserved in what they said in space and back on Earth.

    O’Brien went on to say that “the agency is loathe, itself, to talk about anything openly. As such they often gloss things over such that things “not out of family” stay under wraps with the impression given whenever possible that things are “nominal.’ As such, their behavior on NASA’s part results in everyone “missing the real story.”

    “Right now” O’Brien said “I can ‘t get the real story. This is the only story around where access is completely controlled by the entity that is being covered. In other events – such as wars and political situations – journalists are free to circumvent the rules, carry small concealed cameras, and use other means to cover events. We can’t do this in space.”

    “Enter Dennis Tito. If NASA had been listening they’d know that this was the highest interest that had been shown in the ISS. None of the other stories resonates with the public. There was a certain “Walter Mitty” aspect to this. NASA then added a David Vs Goliath component.” According to O’Brien “The average person probably did not know we had a space station up there until Dennis Tito came along.” O’Brien noted that “NASA saw ‘Dennis as a Menace’ “and not as an opportunity to further demonstrate the value of the ISS to the public.

    O’Brien feels that “it is not longer a question of if – but when – and who” will be the next private citizen in space. He feels that it is “a good idea to send people into space to tell a story – to bring them into the tent – and to build stronger support for the space station.”

    In closing, he said “we have lost the ‘humanity’ of the human exploration of space.”

    [Continued in Part 2]

    SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.