by Douglas Messier
For eight years, they thundered aloft in cramped Russian spacecraft from a former Soviet spaceport in Kazakhstan, battling bureaucracy and gravity to blaze a trail across the heavens and redefine what it meant to be a space traveler. No longer would access to orbit be limited to highly trained astronauts chosen on merit and working on behalf of their nations; instead, space would be open to any sufficiently healthy people with enough money and moxie to qualify.
Between 2001 and 2009, seven space tourists — officially, spaceflight participants — bought rides on eight Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) through U.S.-based Space Adventures. It seemed like a great breakthrough for commercial space. Soon even more of the world’s wealthy individuals would be flying to orbit. As prices came down, space would be open to more and more people.
ISS Spaceflight Participants, 2001-09
|Spaceflight Participant||Nationality||Source of Wealth||Spacecraft||Mission Dates||Mission Length|
|Dennis Tito||American||Investment Consulting||Soyuz TM-32 -Soyuz TM-31||April 28, 2001- May 6, 2001||7d 22h 04m|
|Mark Shuttleworth||South African-British||Software||Soyuz TM-34 -Soyuz TM-33||April 25, 2002- May 5, 2002||9d 21h 25m|
|Gregory Olson||American||Electronics||Soyuz TMA-7 -Soyuz TMA-6||Oct. 1, 2005- Oct. 10, 2005||9d 21h 15m|
|Anousheh Ansari||Iranian-American||Telecom||Soyuz TMA-9 -Soyuz TMA-8||Sept. 18, 2006-Sept. 29, 2006||10d 21h 5m|
|Charles Simonyi||American||Microsoft||Soyuz TMA-9 – Soyuz TMA-10||April 7, 2007-April 21, 2007||13d 19h 00m|
|Richard Garriott||American-British||Computer games||Soyuz TMA-13 -Soyuz TMA-12||Oct. 12, 2008-Oct. 24, 2008||11d 20h 35m|
|Charles Simonyi||American||Microsoft||Soyuz TMA-14 -Soyuz TMA-13||March 26, 2009- April 8, 2009||12d 19h 33m|
|Guy Laliberté||Canadian||Cirque du Soleil||Soyuz TMA-16 -Soyuz TMA-14||Sept. 30, 2009-Oct. 11, 2009||10d 21h 17m|
|TOTAL||87d 22h 14m|
And then, the first era of space tourism ended as abruptly as it had begun. No more smiling millionauts floating around in Earth orbit. It would be another 12 years — that is, 2021 — before paying spaceflight participants would venture to ISS.
Two Russian Soyuz flights and one SpaceX Crew Dragon flights are set to bring paying customers to the station over the next seven months. In September, another SpaceX mission will take four people into Earth orbit for several days without visiting ISS. More flights are planned in the years ahead.
But, what was this first era of paid orbital flights like? Who went? What did they do up there? Why did the era end so abruptly? And why was the gap so long?
So many questions. And now, the answers.
Business: Investment Consultant
Spacecraft: Soyuz TM-32 – Soyuz TM-31
Mission Dates: April 28, 2001- May 6, 2001
Mission Length: 7d 22h 04m
A former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer turned investment consultant named Dennis Tito was the first to fly to ISS. He had originally bought a ticket to the Russian space station Mir through an American company named MirCorp owned by telecommunications mogul Walt Anderson.
However, NASA insisted that the Russians deorbit the aging space station in order to focus on building ISS. So, Mir ended up burning up over the Pacific Ocean; Tito booked a flight to ISS through Space Adventures as Anderson cried foul that the company had stolen MirCorp’s client.
Tito wasn’t the first client the company had planned to send to ISS. That was Space Adventures investor and video game developer Richard Garriott, whose father Owen had spent 59 days on America’s first space station, Skylab, in 1973 and later flew on the space shuttle. Richard Garriott sold his seat to Tito after suffering losses during the dot-com economic meltdown of 2000-01.
The cost of Tito’s flight was officially stated as being $20 million, the equivalent of $30.18 million today. Another source said Tito paid only $12 million ($18.1 million today).
Tito was assigned with Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin for a short-duration mission to the station. The crew would fly up in the Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft and return in Soyuz TM-31. The orbital lifetime of a Soyuz spacecraft is about six months, necessitating regular replacement to ensure the safe return of ISS occupants.
NASA was another obstacle for Tito and Space Adventures to overcome. Administrator Dan Goldin was opposed to the flight of a non-professional astronaut on only the second Soyuz mission to the new station on safety grounds. When Tito and his two crewmates arrived for training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, they were turned away.
The Russians held firm, saying that Tito had undergone cosmonaut training in Russia and was fully qualified to fly. The crew launched aboard the Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft on April 28, 2001. Tito performed experiments and took pictures of Earth. He returned home aboard Soyuz TM-31 on May 6 after a mission lasting nearly eight days.
While Tito achieved his dream to fly to space, MirCorp founder Anderson was headed for a very different type of confined space. On Feb. 26, 2005, the U.S. government arrested him on charges of tax evasion to which he later pled guilty. He ended up at a federal correctional facility in New Jersey. Anderson was released on Dec. 28, 2012.
Nationality: South African-British
Spacecraft: Soyuz TM-34 – Soyuz TM-33
Mission Dates: April 25, 2002 – May 5, 2002
Mission Length: 9d 21h 25m
Shuttleworth was the first South African in space. He participated in research experiments on genome and AIDS. He spoke by video to South African President Thabo Mbeki as part of Freedom Day, a national holiday that celebrates the first post-apartheid national elections in 1994 during which all eligible citizens were allowed to vote without regard to race. Previously, black citizens were banned from voting and non-white people had limited voting rights.
Shuttleworth also talked via radio with former president Nelson Mandela and a terminally ill 14-year old South African teenager named Michelle Foster. The Reach for a Dream Foundation gave Forster the opportunity to talk to Mandela and Shuttleworth.
Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-7 – Soyuz TMA-6
Mission Dates: Oct. 1, 2005 – Oct. 10, 2005
Mission Length: 9d 21h 15m
One thing you should never, ever call Olsen is space tourist.
“The term space tourist implies that you`ll write a check and you go for a joyride. And believe me that is not the case at all,” he said.
Olsen said he went through 18 months of training before launching to ISS aboard the Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft in October 2005. He underwent monthly medical checks due to a black spot found on his lung during an examination.
Olsen conducted experiments in astronomy and remote sensing and participated in research for the European Space Agency (ESA). He also made use of his amateur radio operator’s license to talk to students on the ground.
Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-9 – Soyuz TMA-8
Mission Dates: Sept. 18, 2006 – Sept. 29, 2006
Mission Length: 10d 21h 5m
Ansari was no stranger to novel space activities. Her family had earlier provided funding and its name to the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million competition to launch the first privately-built crew vehicle to space twice in a two-week period. The prize was won by the Burt Rutan-designed and Paul Allen-funded SpaceShipOne on Oct. 4, 2001.
The first Iranian-born person to go to space, Ansari was originally training as a backup to Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto. She was elevated to the prime crew after Enomoto was disqualified for medical reasons due to chronic gall stones.
Ansari performed experiments for ESA that included research into anemia, how changes in muscle use in microgravity affect lower back pain, and the impact of space radiation on crew members and microbes. Ansari was the first person to blog from space.
The same year Ansari flew, her family’s investment firm, Prodea Systems, announced a partnership with Space Adventures and Russia’s space agency to develop a fleet of suborbital vehicles on which people could experience periods of weightlessness on the edge of space.
Enomoto later sued Space Adventures in an attempt to get back the $21 million he spent on his canceled trip. He alleged that he had been badgered repeatedly to invest in Space Adventures. Enomoto claimed the medical disqualification was a false excuse to allow Ansari to fly because Prodea had invested in Space Adventures. The company denied the claims.
Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-9 – Soyuz TMA-10
Mission Dates: April 7, 2007 – April 21, 2007
Mission Length: 13d 19h 00m
Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-14 – Soyuz TMA-13
Mission Dates: March 26, 2009 – April 8, 2009
Mission Length: 12d 19h 33m
Total Time: 26d 14hr 33m
The Hungarian-born software engineer’s interest in space began when he was young. At the age of 13, he was selected as Hungary’s Jr. Astronaut and traveled to Moscow, where he met cosmonaut Pavel Popovich.
After immigrating to the United States, Simonyi worked at Microsoft, where he helped to create the Office Suite of programs. He was the first billionaire to fly to space, and the only person to ever pay his own way to orbit twice.
During his two flights, Simonyi participated in medical experiments and used ham radio to communicate the wonders of spaceflight with students in the United States and Hungary.
Simonyi was the second Hungarian-born person to reach space. Hungarian cosmonaut Bertalan Farkas flew to the Salyut 6 space station aboard Soyuz 36 in 1980.
Business: Video Games
Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-13 – Soyuz TMA-12
Mission Dates: Oct. 12, 2008 – Oct. 24, 2008
Mission Length: 11d 20h 35m
Garriott became the first second-generation American space traveler when he launched to ISS in October 2008. His father, retired NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to see his son off. He also was present for the landing in Kazakhstan.
When Richard Garriott arrived at the station, he met the world’s first second-generation space traveler, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov. His father, Aleksandr, had also been a cosmonaut.
Garriott was busy during his stay on ISS with a number of experiments and educational outreach projects. He used the Windows on Earth software to identify locations on the planet that should be photographed. People on the ground were able to follow ISS and Garriott’s mission online.
Garriott also worked with the free Metro newspaper in London, which had published a special edition about his flight for British primary school students. He talked to students and amateur radio operators from orbit.
Garriott shot footage for a short film titled, Apogee of Fear. Fantasy author Tracy Hickman wrote the screenplay for the 8-minute movie.
Garriott secretly carried to ISS a small portion of the ashes of Canadian actor James Doohan, best known as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott in the original Star Trek series. Garriott placed a laminated card with the ashes of the actor under the floor cladding of ESA’s Columbus experiment module.
A 2010 documentary, Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the Stars, chronicled his training and spaceflight.
Business: Cirque du Soleil
Spacecraft: Soyuz TMA-16 – Soyuz TMA-14
Mission Dates: Sept. 30, 2009 – Oct. 11, 2009
Mission Length: 10d 21h 17m
The highlight of Laliberté visit to the station was a two-hour webcast that featured artists performing in 14 cities on five continents. The first Canadian space tourist said his flight was dedicated to raising awareness about water issues facing the world.
Laliberté published a book titled Gaia that featured pictures of Earth that he took during his flight. He designated book proceeds to go to a charity he established, One Drop Foundation, which focuses on access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
Laliberté attempted to write off the full cost of his USD $35 million ISS visit as a business expense. In May 2020, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals ruled that only 10 percent of the trip was work related, with taxes assessed on the remainder.
The Long Gap
In total, the seven spaceflight participants’ eight flights lasted 87 days, 22 hours and 14 minutes. Simonyi’s two missions lasted more than 26 days and made up 30.26 percent of the total.
Four months prior to Laliberte’s flight, the permanent crew of ISS was doubled to six, meaning that Soyuz seats previously bought by paying customers were reserved for professional astronauts. The end of the American space shuttle program in July 2011 further limited Soyuz seat availability because the Russian vehicle was the only system capable of taking astronauts to the station.
A seat did open up in 2015. British singer Sarah Brightman was to fly to the space station aboard Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft in September of that year. Brightman cited “personal family reasons” when she backed out of the flight on May 13, 2015.
Space Adventures had an even more ambitious plan to launch a cosmonaut and two spaceflight participants paying $150 million apiece on a flight around the moon aboard a modified Soyuz spacecraft. The company planned to conduct the mission by January 2017 to honor the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in a launch pad fire. But, the flight never came off.
Austrian businessman Harald McPike sued Space Adventures to get his $7 million deposit back after plans for the lunar trip fell through. He and Space Adventures reached an out-of-court settlement in April 2019. According to court documents, he would have flown to the moon with Anousheh Ansari.
The collapse of the lunar plan and the limited availability of Soyuz seats left the 2010’s bereft of space tourists. Russia made up for the financial shortfall by charging NASA an ever increasing amount to fly its astronauts. The cost eventually rose to $90 million per seat.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program promised to provide new orbital vehicles for private missions and free up seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft during the 2010’s. However, Boeing and SpaceX proved incapable of meeting their optimistic schedules. It was not until 2020 that SpaceX began flying astronauts to ISS on a commercial basis aboard Crew Dragon. Boeing has still not flown its Starliner spacecraft to the station.
Suborbital Trips Delayed
Meanwhile, plans for suborbital space tourism sputtered. The success of the privately-built SpaceShipOne seemed to herald a new age of private space travel. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson promised to fly tourists on the larger SpaceShipTwo beginning in 2007.
But, it was not to be. Technical problems and two fatal accidents led to more than a decade and a half of delays. Virgin Galactic plans to start flying space tourists in 2022.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin promised to fly people on its New Shepard for several years at the end of the 2010’s. However, the company’s schedule repeatedly slipped. Blue Origin’s first crewed New Shepard flight with a paying passenger is now scheduled for July 20. Bezos and his brother, Mark, will join the winner of an auction on the flight.
Nothing ultimately came of the partnership announced between Ansari’s Prodea Systems, Space Adventures and the Russian space agency to develop a fleet of suborbital space tourism vehicles.
XCOR, which planned to fly tourists on the suborbital Lynx space plane, declared bankruptcy in late 2017. Similar efforts by Rocketplane and Armadillo Aerospace to develop vehicles for the suborbital market also failed.
A Mixed Legacy
The first era of space tourism was opportunistic: an ambitious American company teamed with a cash-strapped Russian space agency desperate for hard currency to fulfill the boyhood and girlhood dreams of seven very wealth individuals. The flights occurred during a niche in time when Soyuz seats were available.
Space tourism version 1.0 set an important precedent for future paid flights. SpaceX, Axiom Space, Roscosmos and Space Adventures are now following the model that it established. However, it didn’t develop any new technology to make access to space any more frequent or affordable.
The cost of getting to orbit has only increased even as the opportunities have grown more numerous. A ticket on a SpaceX Crew Dragon reportedly costs up to $55 million. Russia has not released what it is charging for seats on Soyuz.
To really open up space, the industry needs to radically bring down the cost and create more destinations to reach. Until that happens, space travel will be limited to the very wealthy.