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Make room for the space tourists

$20 million offer leaves agencies questioning who can go into space

Tito
Dennis Tito  
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(CNN) -- Many grow up wanting to be astronauts. But only a select few ever venture into outer space.

They must excel academically, demonstrating the mathematic and scientific expertise needed to grasp complex aeronautic, mechanical and astronomical principles. They also must be physically fit and able to withstand the rigors of space travel. And they must have the good fortune to be picked from a group of similarly qualified, hard-working, ambitious people.

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Or they must have $20 million.

NASA worked for months to prevent the latter qualification from holding true, doing all it could to block the upcoming voyage of Dennis Tito, 60, to the International Space Station. But the United States, the leading partner in the 16-nation group building the Alpha station, found itself without many options and with the Russian Space Agency in control of its passenger list.

Tito paid $20 million to travel on Moscow's Soyuz rocket ship, scheduled to depart Earth for the ISS on April 28. The California financier has trained almost a year with Russian cosmonauts.

A NASA team in Russia has been working daily in recent weeks to resolve questions about Tito's mission, a NASA spokesman said. Several top space agencies spent Monday discussing ways to make the International Space Station safe for the paying tourist, according to Debbie Rahn, who deals with international issues at NASA.

If all goes to plan, Tito will leave on the Soyuz on Saturday, stay a week on Alpha, then return to Earth on another Soyuz module.

"We are systematically working at the professional level and expect, before the launch of Mr. Tito, all these issues will be resolved," NASA chief Daniel Goldin said Monday, a sharp departure from the agency's strong anti-Tito stance in recent weeks. "It is a non-issue, a non-problem -- we want to get on with the program."

NASA had Tito sign a legal document, pledging neither he nor his heirs would sue the U.S. space agency if anything goes wrong in space, sources told Time magazine. The agreement also calls for Tito to pay for anything he breaks. Rahn said Monday she did not know what Tito had signed or not signed.

A matter of money

The mission would make the NASA engineer-turned-entrepreneur the first "space tourist" -- a person who pays to fly. Russia has expressed interest in routinely selling one of the three seats to travelers with a taste for adventure for much-needed funds.

Space agencies now face challenges that didn't exist during the Cold War, when political rivalry fueled competition and spending in space. NASA has seen its budget slashed in 6 of the last 8 years. But the situation is worse in Moscow, where cash shortages recently delayed the ditching of the Mir space station.

Space experts say Moscow's financial troubles have held up completion of the International Space Station.

‘Our concern is the timing’

Throughout the ordeal, NASA said it did not oppose sending citizens into space.

"This is about Dennis Tito, not the greater issue of space tourism," NASA astronaut and manager Bill Readdy said earlier this month. "We are not going to let him be the wedge to drive us apart."

By "us," Readdy means the U.S. and Russian space agencies, which have been put into a tense, tenuous space partnership to build the ISS. The Tito issue has added fuel to the fire.

Moscow agreed to let Tito fly to Alpha without first consulting NASA or the space station’s other partners. The United States then refused to let Tito train on U.S. systems at Johnson Space Center in mid-March.

Major contributors backed NASA last week, urging Russia to postpone Tito's trip because the fledgling space station is still under construction.

"As a tourist, you would not go to a hotel still under construction," Ernst Messerschmid, head of the European Space Agency’s Astronaut Center, told reporters last week. He said Tito's lack of training could endanger himself and the Soyuz and Alpha crews.

"Our concern is the timing," said Alain Dubeau, manager of the Canadian Space Station program. "We want to insure Tito does not get in the way of the crew of the space station."

But while NASA publicly opposed the entrepreneur’s flight, it quietly made plans should he arrive at Alpha. ISS residents spent last week making room for their guests.

"We're looking at it like we would bring any visitor to the station," said Bill Gerstenmaier, deputy manager of NASA’s space station program. "We're looking at basic safety procedures, considering allowing extra time for safety briefings."

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
 

International Space Station

a free-floating spacecraft that orbits the Earth about 240 miles from its surface and is being built by 16 countries

 

cosmonauts

Russian astronauts

 

spawned

brought forth

 

tenuous

weak

 

fledgling

one that is new



RELATED STORIES:
Shuttle closing in on space station
April 20, 2001
Shuttle lifts off on mission to 'arm' Alpha
April 19, 2001
Alpha crew makes room for guests
April 18, 2001
Space station construction getting shot in arm
April 17, 2001

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NASA Homepage
International Space Station

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