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They Call Him the "Space Tourist"

I have a hard time understanding all these honors and being treated like a hero. I expected to have to do something tough – go through some great ordeal that required great courage – to get rewarded for something that was so much fun seems silly. It was simply the greatest experience of my life."

~ Sen. E.J. "Jake" Garn regarding his 1985 trip on the space shuttle

California millionaire Dennis Tito made the journey to into space this week aboard a Soyuz TM-32 rocket for an eight day venture to the international space station. Cost for the trip? An estimated $20 million, give or take some palm grease that he surely has had to pay to Russian apparatchiks along the line.

NASA's reaction to Mr. Tito's enterprise has been predictably negative. In fact, they have done everything in their power to prevent Tito from making the flight, including barring him from joining his two Russian crewmates during their space station training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston last month. This lead to a boycott by the Russian cosmonauts, who relented when they were assured that their "fare," Mr. Tito, would be allowed to make the trip with them anyway.

The Russians, bless their little capitalist hearts, insisted that they had a right to give a paying customer a ride in their rocket if they wanted to, regardless of what NASA had to say about it.

NASA's response? They told Tito that he was not allowed in the U.S. areas of the space station, and that if he breaks anything he will have to pay for it.

Well, just who the hell do these pencil-neck, pocket-guard wearing, white-tape-on-the-horn-rimmed-glasses geeks that we taxpayers employ to run that bloated, overrun- burdened boondoggle of a space agency think they are anyway? Do we fund NASA as a private clubhouse for engineers and rocket jockeys to scamper about like so many Commander Cody space rangers, or are they accountable for their operational expenses? Who's calling the shots here?

According to published reports, Dennis Tito is a degreed aerospace engineer who had once worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California. Once upon a time, he even charted flight paths for NASA's Mariner Mars probes before leaving to form Wilshire Associates and make his fortune. He also has apparently kept himself in reasonably good health, and he has gone through a physical training program to prepare for the mission. My guess is the man was capable of making such a space flight, or the Russians wouldn't have made the room for him. The last thing they want is a dead American multimillionaire on their hands. Bad for business, don't you know.

Granted, Dennis Tito isn't some former Democrat senator from Ohio looking for a free ride back into space as quid pro quo for derailing an investigation into potential illegal campaign contributions made to a former president of the same party. He also isn't acting as chair of the appropriations committee overseeing NASA, as Sen. Jake Garn was when he got his ride on shuttle mission 51-D in 1985. Other than these obvious liabilities, however, it would appear that Tito's qualifications were pretty good. Besides, he was bumming a ride with the Russians. NASA wasn't even expected to expend the solid rocket fuel to haul his 140 lb. butt into zero gravity weightlessness. They just had to play the polite host while their guest was visiting.

As for NASA's "you break it, you bought it" posture toward Mr. Tito, I don't recall any of the bureaucrats at the space agency reaching for their wallets when they lost the $165M Mars Polar Lander. Remember that one? "Oh, that there lander, she'll be calling home any minute now. Any minute. Yesiree, Bob! Just you wait. Annnny minute…Did we ever tell you it's dark up there?"

In fact, other than some tap dancing with the media and NASA's Capitol Hill underwriters at the time of the incident, I'm not sure that anybody ever did figure out who failed to do the correct "cipherin'" on that little fiasco. What damage could a "space tourist" possibly cause that would hold a candle to that waste of taxpayer dollars?

I believe that Dennis Tito is on to something here. Word is that film director James "I'm King of the World" Cameron is currently in negotiations with the Russian Space Agency to get his own rocket ride to the international space station. At $20 mil or so a clip, the Russians could fund some pretty nifty research with these private contributions, and reduce the need for Russia's citizens to carry the full freight of space exploration.

In America, we have a term for this concept. We call it "gas money". Every college kid from Bayonne to Pismo Beach who drives home at the end of the semester understands this little nugget of free-market capitalism. You post a sign on the student union bulletin board:

WINTER BREAK Heading to Ashtabula, Ohio Have Wheels, Need Riders Call 555-4250 Ask for Gonzo

Hitch up with a couple of dudes goin' yer way, and you can hang onto a few of your own samolians for beer money.

Maybe, if we get really lucky, the boys over at NASA will figure this out. My bet is the Russians are hoping they don't.

May 3, 2001