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California millionaire to go on $20 million ride to space station

Would-be space tourist Dennis Tito undergoes weightlessness simulation tests
Would-be space tourist Dennis Tito undergoes weightlessness simulation tests  

From CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien

ATLANTA (CNN) -- The California millionaire who paid $20 million for a ticket to ride to the Russian space station Mir may be getting much more than he bargained for: a week-long visit to the gleaming, new International Space Station at the end of April.

The Russian Aviation and Space Agency and its main aerospace contractor, Energia, will make a formal announcement about the trip Saturday morning at mission control near Moscow.

The announcement came shortly after an unmanned "Progress" space tug is set to dock with Mir, laying the groundwork for its controlled descent into the Pacific in early March.

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"We have reached full agreement," said Dennis Tito in a telephone interview with CNN from his quarters in Star City, Russia.

The former NASA engineer and founder of the Los Angeles-based investment management company Wilshire Associates added, "I don't think there are any more contractual uncertainties."

Tito said the contract guarantees him a seat on a Soyuz rocket that will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 30. The spacecraft was already slated to dock at the space station to replace the Soyuz currently docked there. That craft brought the first live-in U.S./Russian crew to the station in November, and has served as a "lifeboat" for the trio ever since. Its "on-orbit" lifespan of six months expires May 1.

The mission will be the first in a series of biannual Soyuz "taxi missions" to the $100 billion orbiting outpost. The "taxi" runs are designed to insure a "fresh" lifeboat is always on hand for station-keepers during the projected 15 to 20 year life-span of the station.

The Russians initially planned to only fill two of the three seats on the Soyuz with cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin. But now it appears Tito has bought himself the vacant slot.

"Taxi" crewmembers will typically spend about a week on board the space station and then board the "old" Soyuz for their return to Earth.

"I can't believe where I am -- I am in the catbird seat for some reason," said Tito. "This has kind of snowballed."

Last August, the Dutch-based company MirCorp, which was trying to market Mir as a tourist destination, announced it had brokered a deal to send Tito to the creaking, nearly 15-year-old station. But when MirCorp failed to make payments to Energia last fall the deal soured and plans were put in motion to bring Mir down in March.

Tito's payment was held in an escrow account. Now he says that money will be paid directly to Energia if it makes good on its promise to give him a ride.

But the intensely determined space enthusiast still has one more hurdle to clear. The Multilateral Crew Operations Panel of the 16-nation ISS partnership will meet in Houston next month to consider the Russian proposal to fly Tito.

The six-member panel consists of astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. It is chaired by NASA's Chief Astronaut, Charlie Precourt.

The panel must sign off on any prospective visitor to the space station. Among the issues considered: crew training, safety, life support systems and supplies and ground support.

Sources at NASA said it appears highly unlikely the panel will have the will or authority to veto Tito's visit, given the extent of his training and Russian certification and insistence that he is fit to fly.

If Tito flies, he will become the world's first space tourist, but almost certainly not the last. The cash-strapped Russian space program will likely find "taxi fare" is just the ticket for generating some hard currency in the future.



RELATED STORIES:
Beginning of the end for Mir
January 24, 2001
Mir cargo ship launch rescheduled
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RELATED SITES:
Mir Space Station
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