Go back to article: Through the lens of a space tourist

My holiday in space

In 2007, at Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business and Management, Dennis Tito, a CEO from California, shares a personal slideshow of images from his trip to outer space.[1] One of the first visuals to appear on the lecture screen behind him is the iconic Soyuz rocket being prepared at the launch pad in Kazakhstan. As Tito promptly points out, the design of the rocket dates all the way back to the Soviet military’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Programme (IBMP) and the historic launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957.[2] However, the particular rocket in his footage was launched on 28 April 2001 with Tito on-board as the world’s first space tourist. Tito had purchased his seat on the Soyuz TM-32 mission at the cost of $20-million dollars, spending 7 days, 22 hours, and 4 minutes vacationing on the ISS.

Video 1

The world's first space tourist, Dennis Tito, blasts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Space travel, Tito explains during his lecture, was a lifelong interest, sparked by the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik-1 and a youthful fascination with the Space Race, setting him on the course to study Aerospace Engineering in college. Subsequently, he worked for five years at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the 1960s, calculating the trajectory of the Mariner spacecraft mission to Mars. Dissatisfaction with the salary of a space engineer prompted Tito’s early career change into a ‘financial engineer’. By the 1980s he had established the Wilshire Associates investment management service, where he made his fortune in pension funds. This was followed by the creation of the Wilshire 5000 Index, a company that monitors macro-level stock activity.

Figure 1

Soviet style painting depicting the first satellite in space alongside an image of a chemical works with writing in Russian

Soviet propaganda poster celebrating achievements in space and science: V. B. Koretsky, 'We are first in space, let's be first in chemistry!', 1964. Published by 'Soviet Artist'

Despite his early transition into the world of finance, Tito insists that it was a natural evolution from one science to another. In fact, he explains that the computer programming skills that he developed at JPL were the very same ones that he used to make the primary calculations within the stock market. Taking a broad view of market movements and tracing the trajectory of a rocket depended on the same engineering solutions. Now, as the world’s first space tourist, Tito has been able to achieve the ultimate ‘overview’: a businessman whose company was among the first to visualise and capture macro financial movements in the stock market, has also looked down upon the world from afar.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of three seated astronauts in space suits one of which is Dennis Tito the first space tourist

Dennis Tito, world’s first space tourist (left), wearing the Soviet space suit ‘Orlan’, and Russian crew members, Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin, 2001

While Tito’s first-hand account of what some might call the first holiday in space has thus far been overlooked as a footnote in the broader history of space travel, I would like to suggest that it signals a definitive transition in the orientation of the US and Russian space programmes. More than a novelty, Tito’s journey represents the beginning of a new worldview – a dramatic shift from the Cold War perspective that looked back on the Earth as a battlefield, or even an ecological gaze on the Earth as a fragile and finite organism, to one that looks back on Earth as a luxury attraction. It is no surprise that Tito’s lecture took place as part of The Dean’s Executive Leadership Series, which invites speakers to ‘share their view on the real world of business’.[3] Indeed, his slideshow responds to the premise by presenting the view of the world from a perspective of privilege and business achievement.  

During his teenage years Tito anticipated his own space voyage in the context of the popular science fiction of the time – a vision that prevailed alongside the governmental and military space programmes. The image of the space-age interstellar traveller was already drawing on a long lineage of civilian explorers in speculative science fiction literature and film at the turn of the twentieth century. The pioneering trip to the Moon in Jules Verne's novel, De la Terre à la Lune (1865; From the Earth to the Moon), Georges Méliès film, Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902; A Trip to the Moon), and the Soviet Union’s feature film Cosmic Voyage (1933), portray adventurers and enthusiasts embarking on journeys inside of spacecraft. Elements of the space tourism industry also first appeared in the space age fictions of Arthur C Clarke's, A Fall of Moondust (1961) and Joanna Russ' Picnic on Paradise (1968), which feature wealthy Earthlings and their misadventures in space travel.

Figure 3

Poster for a soviet film cosmic voyage depicting a soviet style painting of a female astronaut and a futuristic space rocket

Film poster, Cosmic Voyage (1933), Soviet Union, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum

As new technologies have continued to revolutionise everyday life, visions of space exploration have also proliferated, constantly speculating on the physical and territorial limits of human experience. In Space and the American Imagination, historian Howard McCurdy (2011, p 5) writes that, ‘The grand vision of space exploration drew considerable strength from its capacity to excite and entertain’. Suggesting that the very scale and ambition of these visions were ‘crucial to their survival in the marketplace of imagination’ (McCurdy, 2011, p 6). Tito himself specifically points to the classic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) written by Arthur C Clarke and its film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick as the seed for his own early space travel fantasy. In keeping with 1960s popular culture, the space faring passengers in the film travel in comfortable and luxurious Pan American Airways spaceships and stay in space hotels run by the Hilton Corporation (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968).[4]

But in the actual year 2001, at the age of 61, Tito’s prospects of accomplishing his lifelong dream of orbiting the Earth came together very differently from his fantasy. Instead of comfortable shuttle planes, it was the appropriated infrastructure of the newly commercialised space industry of the collapsed Soviet Union and a $20-million-dollar contract that created the necessary conditions for his flight.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150407/002