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

Opportunities: personal, political and economic

In order to appreciate Tito’s new symbolic role within the history of space travel, it is necessary to view it in relation to the matrix of political, cultural, and market imaginaries that helped him get there. Although Tito prefers to see himself as a pioneer, in many ways he took his place in space history after it had already been imagined and defined, first by centuries of speculation and visionary science and finally in the introduction of commercial space enterprises of the new millennium. Tito himself has become a kind of an artefact within this cultural and institutional history, which begins much earlier, in the origins of the Soviet space programme.

Figure 4

Soviet style space poster from the 1960s showing an astronaut marching with a soviet flag

Through Worlds and Centuries’, Soviet space poster, 1960s, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum

The first generation of Soviet rocket engineers were deeply influenced by both the technical and the cultural fantasy of space travel (Siddiqi, 2004). At the end of the Second World War, these visionaries were developing long-range missiles in the post-war competition between the USSR and the USA. However, it was the drive to see a scientific application of rocket technology that persevered even the threat of nuclear war. While working in the IBMP, the Chief Designer of the Soviet rocket programme, Sergei Korolev began testing suborbital flights with street dogs inside of the heads of the rockets, taking the place of the nuclear warhead. During one of the early rocket experiments in which an untrained puppy successfully returned from a stratospheric flight, Korolev exclaimed, ‘Space travellers will soon be flying in our spaceships with state visas – on a holiday!’ (Romanov, 1990). It was this fantasy of widespread civilian exploration of space that ultimately ushered the nuclear programme towards a race to the Moon.

The decade long ‘Space Race’ seemed to turn science fiction into reality, culminating in some of the most iconic moments of the twentieth century. And yet, in the fading spectacle of the NASA moon landing, space programmes underwent extreme national criticism as the public began to blame the lack of social welfare, inequality, and other social depravations on excessive government spending (Makemson, 2009). At the height of the race, NASA’s budget equalled four per cent of the total federal expenditure, more than was designated to education or health care (Handberg, 2003). Space exploration, which in many ways became symbolic of Cold War competition, cost as much as any other modern war, nearly bankrupting the Soviet Union in the process and causing severe public disapproval in the US.

In order to sustain the future of space exploration past the lunar missions of the 1960s, both the Soviets and the Americans had to think beyond the short-term political value of extraordinary missions, towards long-term institutional reform. The space programmes had proven to have strategic value for foreign policy objectives, as well as producing a highly skilled workforce that could not simply be dismantled due to unpopular cost over-runs. The structural reforms of the 1970s changed the space programmes forever, even prompting US President Jimmy Carter (quoted in NASA, 1979) to state that ‘The first great era of space is over. The second is about to begin.’ It was in the time of wider political, economic, and societal transformation that the culture of the space agencies was forced to change as well (Woods, 2009).

Beginning in the 1970s both NASA and the Soviet space programme shifted their focus from one-of-a-kind technological feats towards the stability of long-term scientific research and routine access to space. Over the following decade, the Soviet Union transitioned to successfully maintaining a permanent presence in orbit aboard a series of space stations called Salyut. In the meantime, NASA began the design and production of the reusable Space Shuttle programme. As historian Brian Woods (2009) has noted, NASA’s Space Shuttle ‘promised technology that would precipitate a revolution akin to those thought to have been engendered by the ship, the train, and the aeroplane’. This new infrastructure would open the door for investors, entrepreneurs, and potentially the general public, deeming it ‘the next logical step in space’ (Congressional Record, 1973).  

In order to balance the expenditure of the Space Shuttle design and operation, NASA calculated the potential subsidy in the form of payload costs – or space cargo that would be shipped by private parties. Payloads mainly included scientific and medical research experiments as well as satellites and their parts. But more significantly, this cargo was accompanied by Payload Specialists – partially trained crew who joined the Shuttle missions, and over the years of the programme saw politicians, scientists, engineers, business representatives and even a Saudi prince in orbit. The Soviets also opened the doors of their space station through a programme, called Intercosmos [5]. This programme created joint space ventures with the allied Eastern European and Communist countries: Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam. Intercosmonauts were ‘guest cosmonauts’ who would join the Soviet crews in the mid-1970s and 1980s on missions to the Salyut and later on the Mir space stations. Just like the payload specialist, the guest cosmonauts did not receive the full extent of cosmonaut training. Their week-long missions were designed by their respective countries and focused on scientific research, international cooperation, and Earth observation. Unexpectedly, the multicultural crews of the Intercosmos programme not only paved the way for building further international space relations between the East and the West (Draguns, 2011), they also reflected Buckminster Fuller’s (1968) utopian notion, that ‘we are all astronauts’.

Towards the end of the Intercosmos programme, and with only ‘slight modification’, the Soviet space agency was able to offer the guest seat to the Mir space station to paying customers (Johnson, 2007, p 181). In 1989, Tokyo Broadcast Systems paid $12 million dollars to fly a Japanese reporter, Toyohiro Akiyama. In 1991, a British business consortium negotiated a flight for the British chemist Helen Sharman, the first woman to visit the Mir space station (Zimmerman, 2003, pp 292–301). These two international, civilian space travellers completed cosmonaut training in Star City, had specific missions developed by their nation states, and had their tickets financed by their governments. Although the space program was in a sense officially opened to the market by these events, the notion of commercially viable tourism was still a distant consideration.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of Helen Sharman female space tourist in a space suit smiling and holding flowers as she is helped down from a module

Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut and the first female to fly to the Mir space station, 1991, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum

As the Space Shuttle programme continued, the payload costs that were meant to subsidise its operation did not meet NASA’s initially promised calculations (Johnson, 2007). To entice private consumers, NASA had to offer a highly discounted payload rate, in a sense using tax dollars to subsidise commercial users (Woods, 2009) – a move which directly clashed with the government’s ‘ideology of the superiority of free enterprise over government activities’ (Johnson, 2007).

In an attempt to regain control, US President Ronald Reagan passed the Commercial Space Launch Act – a law ‘giving power to the private and consumer sector to capitalise on the ventures in outer space and space technology’.[6] Reagan’s 1984 reform to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act called on the private commercial sector to begin competing in the space market, developing an independent industry for rocket technologies, launch pads and space enterprises. President Reagan and a group of advisors from the business community determined numerous commercial activities that could be developed on the platform of a new space station as well as ‘permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space’ (Reagan, 1984b).

Figure 6

Colour photograph of an astronaut in space floating above a spacecraft and holding up a sign which reads for sale

Astronaut Dale A Gardner holds a ‘For Sale’ sign during a spacewalk, denoting the coming age of commercialised space travel, 1984

The US was confident in the growth of the commercial space industry ‘fuelled by the competitiveness of private enterprise’ and believed that the coming space economy would soon pioneer new space ventures, creating new billionaires in the process (Gump, 1990).[7] Historians, journalists, lawmakers, tech enthusiasts, and the public all agreed that NASA’s traditional model of government funding was incapable of facilitating the future of space travel and the new economic frontier[8]. Compounding this political consensus was the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 28 January 1986, which forced NASA to pause its space programme and temporarily suspend collaborative projects. With the uncertainty of NASA’s long-term support and the turn towards the open market in the late 1980s, America’s entrepreneurs hoping to invest in the space market soon found themselves working with the Soviet Union, where the space programme was more receptive to commercial ventures in a struggle to remain afloat. 

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a mid air explosion during the Challenger space shuttle disaster

Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, 1986

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, as the space programme transitioned from Soviet communism to the market model of the new Russian Federation, other countries now had a chance to conduct their own international space programmes in partnership with Russia.

MirCorp, an agency co-founded by the American businessman Jeffrey Manber was among the first American enterprises to partner with the space programme of the new Russian Federation. At the end of the 1990s MirCorp partnered with the world's oldest space organisation, ‘S.P. Korolev RSC NPO Energia’ (Energia), known simply as Special Design Bureau number 1 when it was initiated by the Soviets in 1946. Energia operated as a central design bureau for the technology of the Soviet space programme. In 1999 MirCorp and Energia began to develop a commercial platform as a last resort to save the ageing Mir space station, and it was MirCorp that initially brokered Tito’s trip with Energia in the year 2000. Ultimately, the mission was finalised through Space Adventures, Ltd[9] aboard the ISS, but MirCorp played an important role in initiating and defining the precedent for the journey. In his memoir, Manber (2009) describes how Energia radically redefined the model of the Soviet space programme through their embrace of the commercial market:


The new head of Energia envisioned a free market where his private sector cosmonauts would ferry everyday people aboard his Soviet rockets, where passengers could live aboard the brand new space station Mir, controlled by his company. Energia’s space engineers would conduct industrial research for foreign companies and governments; even shoot advertisements for consumer products.


As Manber (2009) points out, the transformation of the Soviet rocket programme into a commercial space service was something few had imagined in the heat of the space race thirty years prior: ‘Just how has it come about that we owe it to the Russians for showing that capitalism and tourists can thrive, like dogs, monkeys, yeast cells, and fighter jocks in the zero-gravity of the space station?’

In parallel with the reforms of the Kremlin, then head of Russia’s space programme in Energia, Yuri Semenov, began to oversee his rocket engineering company much like a CEO, taking advantage of the market reforms sweeping over the new Russian Federation and accelerating their results. In order to create the funding to maintain the Mir space station, Semenov and Manber leased the space station for use by other countries. ‘In so doing,’ writes Manber (2009) in his memoir, ‘Semenov’s Energia broke with the tradition born with the space age, that space services were an extension of foreign diplomacy, not a commercial venture.’

The mutually beneficial transformation provided financial support for the Russian space industry and allowed other nations to pursue research and develop their own space technology, leaving NASA’s model of state funding ‘a relic of the Cold War’ (Manber, 2009). Eventually, even NASA was forced into collaboration with Energia in order to put their astronauts into space. As the money made from a Pepsi commercial shoot on the Mir space station generated the necessary funding to begin to manage NASA-Russian relations, the partnership became symbolic of a new era of collaborative space exploration.[10] This partnership led to the planning, financing and construction of the ISS. The first dollar earned from the newly formed partnership between Energia and NASA is now hanging in a frame at the Energia museum alongside the Sputnik and the Vostok spacecraft.

Dennis Tito had originally visited Moscow to enquire about flying with the Soviet space programme in 1991, around the same time that a military coup was trying to prevent the break-up of the Soviet Union by attempting to bring down Mikhail Gorbachev’s government. Having weathered the collapse and re-organisation of a nation, Tito returned in the year 2000, in the midst of a new commercial co-operation between the Russian Federation and NASA and successfully initiated the process of booking his ticket on the Soyuz. This time, the Russians were ready, and the image of the world’s first space tourist was carefully constructed and managed by MirCorp. The launching of the first Citizen Explorer was also the launch of a new market, announcing that outer space was open for business. Those who could finance their own pioneering journey would become the face to represent the end of the Space Race and the beginning of space tourism. First in line for this role were America’s corporate elite and Hollywood celebrities.[11] The Citizen Explorer was to serve as ‘a bridge between the two once-competing nations’ and open the door for everyday travellers, including paying customers (Manber, 2009). The fact that Tito was an American businessman was as symbolically important as the fact that he was the first to pay. The branding and marketing campaign came at the cost of $8 million dollars out of the $20 million dollars that Tito paid for his trip. As part of the branding campaign, MirCorp succeeded in creating a media frenzy that singled out Tito as ‘the world’s first space tourist’.[12] MirCorp encouraged the idea of a ‘new’ cultural narrative, or as Manber (2009) writes, 'The reign of future tourist flights have been described as beginning with Tito and never before’.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a cosmonaut seat custom built for Dennis Tito the first space tourist

Dennis Tito’s custom-built cosmonaut seat for the Soyuz spacecraft, 2001, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum

The idea of Tito’s presence aboard the space station gravely concerned NASA’s officials and ISS international partners, as well as the rest of the astronaut crew (Harland, 2005). They worried not only about his age and physical wellbeing, but also about his minimal participation in training and language requirements necessary for both the cosmonauts’ and astronauts’ missions. In order to satisfy the ISS partners, lengthy contracts were drawn up between NASA and Tito, which went as far as to specify legal consequences for disturbing the work of astronauts on-board the mission. Tito for his part was not deterred by these concerns or the contractual relations. He had little personal interest in the historic significance of his mission, although he enjoyed the publicity and the media attention it involved. Above all else, Tito wanted to experience spaceflight and it was this desire that drove him through the years of negotiations with the space agencies. During his lecture he boasts, ‘The advantage of being a tourist is that I didn’t have any work to do. I was the first person to ever fly in space that didn’t have a choreographed activity’. For Tito, his space trip was a personal mission, not one to make political or scientific statements or breakthroughs. He understood his trip in terms of the accepted categories of vacation, entertainment and economic opportunity. Unlike the technical work assigned to the cosmonauts and astronauts, Tito was mostly concerned with the uniqueness and authenticity of his experience, and therefore highlights this aspect of space travel in his lectures. During his presentation at Pepperdine, Tito goes on to reflect on what he thinks his contributions were to the history of space travel. In a field that consistently attempts to categorise events as the first of a kind, Tito explains that his ‘claim to fame’ is that he ‘had more fun in space than anyone else’. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150407/003