On April 28, 2001, the world of exploration changed forever.
On that day 10 years ago, Dennis Tito, a wealthy engineer who had recently turned 60, broke one of the most sacred barriers in exploration: he became the first private citizen to go to space.
Blasting off on that Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard Russian rocket--Soyuz TM-32--Tito was on his way to a place only professional astronauts and military- or government-sponsored personnel had been able to go before.
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Tito was the launch client for a new company called Space Adventures that was founded in 1998. Led by chairman Eric Anderson, the company set out to change one of the most fundamental dynamics of space travel and make it possible for the first time for private citizens to experience life beyond Earth.
This was not possible in the United States. NASA was not interested in taking tourists aboard the Space Shuttle--and never has been--explained Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz. And so those like Tito who wanted to make like an astronaut had no choice but to go the Space Adventures route--which meant traveling to Russia for weeks of training and an eventual trip aboard one of that country's Soyuz rockets.
This would not be cheap, of course. In the beginning, Tito paid about $20 million, Moskowitz said, an amount that would be today considered "a bargain," given that a trip aboard one of the rockets to the International Space Station now runs more than $40 million.
But in the 10 years since Tito's flight, Space Adventures has booked more than $250 million in spaceflights, the company said. In addition to Tito, Space Adventures has been the booking agent for several other "self-funded" astronauts, including South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari, American video game developer Richard Garriott, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, and Microsoft software guru Charles Simonyi, the only two-time space tourist.
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But back then, in the spring of 2001, this was an entirely fledgling venture, and Tito was about to do something that was seen as being just the first step to a possible eventual democratization of space.
"It was the first time a private citizen had paid his own way to go to space," said Moskowitz. "Up until then, it had only been professional astronauts and military...The rest of us were earthbound. It was the first time that everybody got a glimpse that maybe we could go to space, too."
While it's clear that a Space Adventures trip is only available to multimillionaires today, Moskowitz said the reason Tito's flight was so important was that it was a necessary first step down the long road towards much cheaper space travel. "The more demand for private space flight," she said, "the more those flights will take place and the more the price will come down. It's the first step pointing to the future, and it gives the rest of us hope that eventually, the price will come down to the point where you don't have to be a multimillionaire to go to space."
To be sure, though, if that happens it's decades away. British entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic promises $200,000 trips to space in the next year or so, but those are sub-orbital flights that return to Earth without passengers having even made a full trip around the planet. By comparison, Tito not only got to travel to the space station, he got to spend eight days there.
'It's now or never'
In an interview in Space.com, Tito explained that he had first come up with what he called his "lifelong goal" to go to space around the time of Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin's first flight in 1961. "So here I was, in the year 2000, and I was about to turn 60," Tito told Space.com. "I said, 'Time is running out.' Because at that point, the oldest person that ever flew as a rookie, to my knowledge, was Deke Slayton, who was 51. So I was getting over the hill, I thought. So I said, 'It's now or never.'"
Clearly, he made it, and as he told Space.com, the experience was memorable for a wide range of reasons. Perhaps the part that stuck with him the most was something he might never have guessed. "They had pencils hanging from strings in the cabin of the Soyuz," he recalled. "And these pencils just started floating, and I knew it was weightless. You couldn't really tell yourself, because you're strapped in with your belts, so you didn't float at all. But I knew that we were in orbit. And I looked out the window, saw the blackness of space, saw the curvature of Earth and I just said, 'Yes. I made it. I accomplished my life's dream.' And that moment I will never forget."