Moments the Universe Changed

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Dennis Tito’s Wild Ride

There are several moments that are iconic snapshots in time of what those in the future will look back upon as the human evolution into space. Be they frozen images of triumphs past, such as the most expensive selfies ever shot by Buzz and Neil on the Moon during the Apollo Moon landing; reminders of danger and heroes – such as the terrible death trails across the sky left by Challenger and Columbia; previews of our future – such as the image of Space Ship One piercing the veil of space above Mojave, California; or the pinpoint landing of a SpaceX Falcon re-useable rocket stage on a raft bouncing in the sea; for those paying attention today they are the headlines of a revolution underway. For those looking back from their new homes in space tomorrow, they will all blur together into one narrative, a tracing of the trail we blazed to begin their move out to the stars. While those I listed above are obvious markers on the way, there are others that may not be so obvious but that, once seen in context, are just as important, and may even be more so. For example, there was once this guy who wanted to fly in space before he retired:

It happened at 5:28am EST time on January 23, 2001.

Hurtling through space at 17,100 mph, 250 miles above the Earth, the airlock hatch on the International Space Station opened and a small, balding older man, who one space professional said resembled Mr. Burns on the cartoon show The Simpsons, floated through to join the professional astronauts who had made the facility their home for the last several months. Taking a deep breath of the smelly locker room air he beamed and said: “I love space!” A few days later, he landed on the Russian steppes with his comrades. As the capsule door opened he gave a thumbs up and said he had “just been to paradise”.

His name was Dennis Tito. He was a very wealthy businessman who had made his money by applying formulas he had developed for NASA spacecraft to Wall Street, and his quest to go to paradise had begun over sushi with me in Santa Monica just over a year before. He had built an empire, complete with a mansion in Bel Aire and an office building overlooking the Pacific. He had flown on zero G Mig flights, but wanted more. He wanted to “be” in space.  And I just happened to have a space station.

In 1997 my friend Walt Anderson and I had begun the process of leasing the Russian space station Mir. With his investment of millions of dollars, our plan was to survey it, refurbish it and then use it to build out as a hub for industrial activities in space, from satellite repairs to asteroid mining. The keys to our success were our great Russian partners and a new technology called an electro-dynamic tether that would dramatically drop the cost of keeping the station in space. Unfortunately, the US State department blocked our plans, and we were left with a building that needed it’s rent paid. We got creative, talking to the producers of the Survivor television show, film director James Cameron, and anyone else that might want access to a rather uniquely situated piece of real estate. That December I gave an update to a group of supporters in Santa Monica. Dennis was in the audience. My friend John Spencer introduced us. We did lunch. (It’s LA.)

I asked him if he really wanted to go into space. He said yes. I said well, we can make that happen. I called Jeff Manber, who was the CEO of our commercial station company MirCorp. We signed a contract. Dennis put $1M into an escrow account. And so it began. Of course the US government then almost literally shot us down, and the Mir was killed – ending its life in a fiery plunge into the Pacific. We still had a deal though, and the efforts of MirCorp and our partners at Energia who managed both Mir and the International Space Station, turned to making sure he got his visit – except now the challenge was not so much about space, as it was about kicking open the government airlock to the International Space Station – something no one had ever done before.

In one of the more unfortunate branding disasters of history, Tito was hailed as the world’s first “space tourist”, a term that belies both the risk and training his trip required and its incredible importance in history. To me a tourist is someone with a fanny pack and selfie stick leaving a trail of empty Orangina bottles and pissing on a monument as he rushes to get back on the nice, safe bus where the bored guide robotically tells them to look left, look right, and recites stories of the past. It is in a way a term that seemed almost designed at the time to denigrate anyone not anointed by government. A way, perhaps a way not even consciously considered, to keep space special, to point out that only those with the “right stuff” should be in such a dangerous place, and the rest of us have no business there – even when the job of many of those employed by governments to go into space is to look around, take pictures and rush home themselves.

Dennis wasn’t that guy. He wasn’t a tourist. He was putting his life on the line exactly the same way as any “right stuff” astronaut ever has, and he was doing it to realize his dream of a lifetime. But he wasn’t the stereotypical right-stuff space hero. He wasn’t just “doing his job” as the square-jawed astronauts say to the adoring reporters after their government funded flights. Just like them he was on a personal quest to achieve his dream. Just like them he had worked his whole life to be in the position to achieve his dream, Unlike them, he wasn’t getting paid to have that fun – he was paying for it himself, because, as he put it “I was getting over the hill…So I said, “It’s now or never.’”

You see, Tito made it personal. He made it Real. It wasn’t part of some major political narrative, it wasn’t a stunt put on by the government like flying a politician to pimp for their budget, and it wasn’t to promote or sell any project or policy. He wasn’t a scripted and indoctrinated jet pilot or military stud, he was just a real, older, civilian guy, who had worked hard to make it and wanted to spend his own real money to do something he really wanted to do. He was a sixty something with an average body and health who trained like a real astronaut for weeks and weeks, got yelled at and coached by the same people who do it for NASA and the Russian space agency, went through the same sometimes tortuous and often embarrassingly invasive medical tests, transformed himself into the type of human specimen that could be allowed to go, and then climbed on a bomb with a nozzle and went into space.

And our society, being based on the idea that the achievement of dreams is something anyone can do, including the ability to buy access to achieve those dreams because you made the money that allows you to do so, thought: If this little bald, rather normal, older guy could do it – so could I – so could We.

And so it began.

Within months the next adventurers were signing up with companies that would carry paying guests into space. (After I and others worked with them for months, NASA finally decided on the ponderous term “space flight participants”. Guests, visitors, customers, participants, fine, anything but “tourists” – I still hate the word “tourists”) In the years that followed, others took the same trip. Billionaires and millionaires shelled out $20, $30 million and more to spend a week or so in space. From a video game maker who was the son of an astronaut to the founder of the famous Cirque du Soleil entertainment company, and even a self-made Iranian business woman, each one pouring their hard earned wealth into this celestial flight of fancy, this one ride on the wings of Pegasus to the tiny palace of technology at the top of the world, the symbolic epitome of their climb to the top of their fields.

Today if you have a few tens of millions you can fly out for a week in space; for now, on the International Space Station, very soon on a flight around the Moon, and out to private space hotels. If you only have a couple of hundred thousand you can buy a ride to the edge of space and back. Maybe not for the millions Dennis Tito paid, and maybe not for a week on the space station. Possibly just for a few minutes, a chance to float in micro gravity, to experience the OverView Effect of seeing the Earth from space, and to do so for a lot less money.

For now, space is expensive, and if you want to “be” in space, you must have a lot of cash to spend. But your money is funding a good cause, and that is the point, and why Mr. Tito’s wild ride was so important.

Because for some of us the goal is to open the frontier of space to everyone, and that means creating an economy in space that isn’t based on taxpayers money. For those of us fighting for the cause, the term “no bucks no Buck Rogers” morphed into “nobody stays until somebody pays” and the purchase price of his ticket gave us the first proof of a market that is essentially endless, self creating and central to our goal – people. And yes it was, and is, expensive; for now… But the market was proven, the customer base realized and most importantly, that mental block that so often stops the new and protects the old was shattered.

While we must never forget and always honour the bravery and sacrifice of those professional heroes we call astronauts and cosmonauts who first broke the surly bonds of Earth, it is exactly because they did so that we can now go – and even while they may not have realized it, it is Why they did so. That first flight into space of a normal person, someone just like us, someone who just decided to go and made it happen because others just like us had created a way for them to do so, gave many in the world down below permission to dream.

The purchase of that first ticket to ride didn’t just help pay for a man to realize his dream, it gave the revolution its first hero (or anti-hero if you will). It also showed those of us who already had the dream that we could scale the once-government owned and operated ladder and board the once-off-limits ships of space programs – and begin to turn them into being just places, places where we the people could go. So what may seem like an extravagant and frivolous vacation for a few lucky and elite one-percenters is actually something far more important.

When that smiling normal human guy swung open that Russian airlock and floated into the space station it was like the Berlin Wall falling. Ironically, of course, in this case it was a Russian airlock being pushed open by an American, who had used the democratic free enterprise system to make the money he used to pay the former Soviets to beat the resistance of the US government to stop him from flying to the international space station. But just like the Wall, when it came down, the world changed forever.

While perhaps some who don’t get it call them joyrides, each person who buys a ticket to ride into space is paying for our future. As trivial as its name sounds, the rise of the “space tourism” market was not a frivolous waste of money. It showed that there was both money to be made in space, and that there were paths that could be taken to allow non-government players into the game. And down below some of the right people were listening and watching. People who had the dream themselves. People with lots of money, enough not just to buy a ride, but to build the rockets for others to ride. People who didn’t just want to make a buck, but wanted to take the bucks they had made and make a difference, to change the future.

Thanks to them, within the next decade there will be ships able to carry hundreds of people into space and places for them to live and work when they get there. These what I call  “Mayflower Class” ships will offer the chance for anyone willing to cash in their life savings a chance to go out to the frontier and start a new life. Not a ride or visit, not to take a picture and go home, but to live. And that my friends is the goal of this whole exercise.

The flight of Tito may not have looked like it, but far from being just an extravagant vacay’ in space for an LA one-percenter, it was one of the down payments we needed to help fund the revolution. In fact, it may one day be seen as part of one of the most important things to have ever happened to the human race and life itself. Ever.

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