Worth the risk

Russians are justifiably proud of their historic space program milestones, which include not only the first man, but the first woman, the first spacewalk and decades later, ferrying the first—and still only—space tourists.

Today we celebrate the 49th anniversary the day when Yury Gagarin became the first human to leave and return to planet earth. This Russian holiday is known as “Cosmonauts Day,” which in its name honors the men and women who have risked their lives to reach the frontier of space.

That the Russians are the pioneers in space tourism should come as no surprise. During the early 1990’s the space program, like every other Russian sector from airlines to ballet, was forced to adopt commercial market practices. That meant opening the door to the era of the paying customer. Until then, space exploration was the domain of the space agency professional.

The world’s first space tourist was Japanese reporter Toyohiro Akiyama, who was a crew member for the Soyuz TM 11’s December 1990 mission. His company, the Tokyo Broadcasting System, paid about $12 million dollars for the ride. Some maintain Akiyama was not a tourist, since he was a reporter on duty. But he clearly was not a cosmonaut either.

Next up was UK national Helen Sharman, who won a lottery contest that attracted 13,000 applicants. Think about that. More than 13,000 Brits were willing to sign up and train for six months at Star City outside of Moscow to rocket off into space onboard a Soyuz launch vehicle and spend two weeks on the Russian space station Mir. Would you?

This opening of the final frontier met with a lot of skepticism by the American space community, including the then-head of NASA Dan Goldin. I know this, as I was involved with the third non-professional space voyager and first American—California businessman Dennis Tito. At the time, I was head of a company called MirCorp, which was a partnership with the Russian space company Energia to market space station Mir.

We were in talks with movie producer James Cameron to shoot an IMAX film in space and we signed an agreement with NBC and Survivor producer Mark Burnett to do a game show in space—but nothing created the kind of furor the erupted on June 18, 2000, when we announced that Dennis Tito had paid his own fare to experience two weeks aboard the Mir.

Eventually Mir was de-orbited and the Russians planned to fly Tito instead to the International Space Station. And that’s where the real problems began. NASA didn’t want any non-professionals on the station. After months of tense negotiations, on April 28, 2001 the 60- year-old former NASA engineer and financial tycoon fulfilled his life’s ambition. “I love space,” Tito shouted when arriving at the space station.

A lot has changed since then. Today, NASA supports the idea of non-professionals visiting the space station and a South African Internet pioneer, a Microsoft software designer, a game developer, and an Iranian-American woman have all blasted off on the Russian Soyuz for the journey of a lifetime.

My time with Tito during his training taught me a lesson I now consider every Cosmonauts Day. It is hard to say why some are willing to risk their lives to push into a new frontier. For men like Yury Gagarin and Neil Armstrong, as well as Mt. Everest explorer Edmund Hillary, the motivation is something more than patriotism and glory. It is that special hunger that lies within. I saw that with Dennis Tito. He had a passion to undertake his own journey of self-discovery—for him it was to push the limits by strapping into a rocket for a ride into space. For someone else, it might be to experience a foreign culture or scuba dive or even just drive off with no destination in mind. Frontiers take many forms and shapes, and I’ve learned that Americans and Russians share a fondness for frontiers. We both have them in our country, vast areas of land where civilization is still an exception. For both of us, our culture is shaped by these frontiers, whether the far reaches of Siberia or Alaska, or personal new challenges or the emptiness of outer space.

So for me this is what space tourism is all about, allowing more people to realize their own dreams of self-discovery. And that’s what Cosmonauts Day has evolved into today—a celebration of all who have sought to make this fantastic journey—whether professional space voyagers or space visitors—and paved the way for those of us still to come.

Happy Cosmonauts Day!

Jeffrey Manber is the author Selling Peace, from Apogee Books, which is his eyewitness account of bringing the Russian and American space programs together.

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