NASA Holds Press Conference on the Dennis Tito Issue

By Keith Cowing
March 25, 2001
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NASA held a press briefing on Tuesday, 20 March 2001 at NASA Headquarters on the recent flap over Dennis Tito’s training at JSC. Michael Hawes, Deputy Associate Administrator for the ISS in the Office of Space Flight and William Readdy, astronaut and Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight answered reporters questions.

To summarize the initial incident that led up to this press conference: on Monday 19 March 2001, cosmonauts Yuri Baturin and Talgat Musabayev, and their commercial passenger Dennis Tito, along with their back up crew, arrived at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) to begin training for the upcoming Soyuz taxi mission to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA would not allow Mr. Tito to train until a number of legal and proficiency issues were resolved. The cosmonauts decided not to proceed with their training and they all walked out. The cosmonauts showed up for training on the following day – without Mr. Tito.

Various Russian sources – affiliated and not affiliated with the Russian Space Agency – have proclaimed loudly that the U.S. does not have the right to make such a decision and that Russia has every intent upon sending Dennis Tito to the ISS on 30 April 2001.

During the course of the press conference NASA reiterated the three main issues it has with Mr. Tito’s participation on the 30 April Soyuz taxi flight to the ISS.

  1. Mr. Tito does not meet the training proficiency requirements that have been levied upon all visitors to the ISS. These requirements are embodied in the various agreements whereby the ISS partner countries and agencies have agreed to operate the ISS. NASA feels that much more training of Mr. Tito on U.S. Segment systems would be required, preferably with the actual crew he would be visiting, before Mr. Tito would be deemed proficient.

  2. While there is a legal framework in place regarding issues of liability between the U.S. and all of the ISS partners (i.e. the Russian Space Agency – RSA) , there is no such agreement in place between the U.S. and the RSC Energia corporation (the Soyuz manufacturer and operator) with whom Mr. Tito has made his travel arrangements. Without having such issues resolved, liability issues remain unclear.

  3. The Soyuz flight Mr. Tito wishes to ride on would arrive at the ISS during a time when assembly operations were either underway or about to commence. NASA feels that there is a crew safety concern involved and that only individuals with the full suite of operations and contingency skills with all ISS, Shuttle, and Soyuz systems should be on orbit at that time.

    In speaking of the core rationale behind NASA’s actions, Hawes said “the fundamental tenet behind the International Space Station is that it is “international”. As such no partner is able to take unilateral action on something like this.” Hawes cited a recent meeting held last week in Moscow of the ISS Multilateral Coordination Board where all of the ISS program partners (with the exception of Russia) expressed their disapproval at the prospect of flying Mr. Tito to ISS on the 30 April Soyuz taxi flight.

    The reason cited was incomplete training, incomplete clarification of various legal issues (liability), and the operational “tempo” aboard the ISS at the time Mr. Tito wants to visit. Hawes noted that this is not a decision only by the US but rather, one made by all of the ISS partners at a meeting last week in Moscow.

    Hawes acknowledge that Russia did have fiscal shortfalls that they were trying to make up for on these taxi missions by selling the third seat in each spacecraft. Up until the issue of flying Mr. Tito arose, all previous discussions concerned flying qualified astronauts and cosmonauts.

    According to Hawes, one of the problems they have had with Mr. Tito is the inability to fully gauge his actual skills and training. When Tito arrived at JSC, it was NASA’s intent to discuss these issues with Mr. Tito. He chose not to have these discussions.

    Bill Readdy echoed NASA’s lack of familiarity with Tito’s skills. Based upon Readdy’s familiarity with training in Star City (he commanded a Shuttle mission to Mir) he felt hat Tito still lacked significant skills needed to visit and safely occupy the ISS. Readdy noted that the two most severe accidents to happen on Mir happened during routine operations – the fire occurred during a taxi mission and the collision occurred during a Progress docking. Readdy repeated the fact that this concern for Mr. Tito’s proficiency was one felt by all of the ISS partners. According to Readdy it is felt that Mr. Tito’s presence would make nominal operations hard, and emergency operations even harder. When asked what amount of training would be required to make Mr. Tito proficient to nullify the objections raised by the ISS partners, Ready said that the standard course he’d imagine would take 6 to 8 weeks.

    Several reporters asked why Tito couldn’t just stay in the Russian segment of the ISS and avoid concerns about proficiency on US hardware by staying away from those parts of the ISS. Hawes responded that this wasn’t at all realistic given that “this is an integrated space station – an international integrated space station. Therefore it requires integrated training.”

    When asked if this was an attempt by the U.S. to try to control the ISS, Hawes responded that all agreements regarding the operation of the ISS are laid out with the roles and responsibilities clearly delineated. “We are following that process right now”.

    Mr. Tito’s proficiency in Russian was raised. While unable to say for sure what his skills are, NASA said that it was important to have those skills in all portions of the ISS since many acronyms are listed in Russian.

    Another issue raised has to do with liability. According to Hawes the current legal framework in place is between governments. “Mr. Tito’s contract is with RSC Energia, a private company. There is currently no protocol for establishing legal liability for non-professional astronauts. This isn’t an insurmountable problem by any means – just that the process is currently not in place and needs to be established”. Hawes repeated an earlier statement saying that it had been NASA’s intent to discuss this issue with Mr. Tito – but Tito chose not to have those discussions. When asked if private insurance (purchased by Tito) would suffice Hawes did not give a yes or no but said that such an option might well be the answer – again, according to Hawes, he couldn’t say much more without having a meeting with Tito.

    When asked what NASA would do if Russia went ahead and launched Tito over the objections of the other ISS partners, Hawes wouldn’t comment directly vis-a-vis specific responses other than to say he was confident that nothing will be done “to further complicate things for our crew on orbit.” When asked if there was a way to change out the old Soyuz for a new one with out the approval of the U.S. Hawes responded that this would be difficult since crews had to traverse the ISS in order to get from one Soyuz to another.

    When asked if the State Department was involved Hawes said that they had continued to operate on this issue within the confines of the international agreements that governed the ISS program and that he had yet to see a reason to bring the State Department into the matter.

    The issue of training costs arose. Hawes said that these costs are rather small in the overall scheme of things and were not something NASA was particularly concerned with in this matter.

    Repeated questions focused on the issue of flying non-professionals in space. While not objecting to flying non professionals in space (this has been done on the Space Shuttle) NASA repeated earlier concerns about the training required for individuals visiting the ISS – and the time frame wherein they would visit the station. Readdy recalled an instance recently when Russia actually said that “non-professionals have no place on the ISS during assembly operations. This concern was bourne out by NASA comments with regard to the timing of Mr./ Tito’s proposed visit. According to NASA the April time frame is one wherein a number of assembly activities are underway or are about to get underway. The tempo aboard the ISS would be much more conducive to a visitor than it will be in April.

    NASA said that they will continue to discuss this issue and felt that it could be resolved in a fashion that did not strain international relations or cause additional complexity of the crews aboard the ISS.

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