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Web exclusive: Preflight interview with Tito

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Dennis Tito  

April 27, 2001
Web posted at: 7:48 p.m. EDT (2348 GMT)

The following is the last exclusive sit-down interview with millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito before his flight to the international space station. CNN Moscow Bureau Producer Ryan Chilcote interviewed Tito while he was in quarantine in his apartment at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. The interview was conducted Sunday afternoon, April 22.

Ryan Chilcote: If you look at what you're getting from a consumer perspective, are you happy with this as a product? You've paid what many would consider to be a lot of money for this.

Tito: Obviously I wouldn't be going ahead with it if I didn't think this was a good deal, and if you remember I started with the idea of going to Mir and it must be pretty obvious that going to ISS is a much better deal.

Chilcote: What's been the best thing about this whole experience?

Tito: There have been many interesting aspects. One is -- there's a lot of difficulty in trying to assure that I would actually accomplish the mission. I had to put in a lot of time not knowing whether I was going to end up flying. I had to say to myself yes I'm going to put that effort in and, you know, win or lose I'm going to give it the best shot I could. And I think as a result of that it really strengthened ah myself as a person because I realized that I was able to put up with a lot more adversity than maybe I thought I could have previously. I also learned a lot about manned space flight. Most of my experience had been with the unmanned interplanetary program so the amount of knowledge that I developed was extraordinary, and overall it was just a very interesting year.

Chilcote: What kind of adversities that you didn't anticipate did you encounter?

Tito: I think it was mainly uncertainty. We started out with the idea of going to Mir and shortly after I began training, a couple of months after I began training, it was decided that the Mir was going to be de-orbited, but there were signs pointing in that direction all along, so I was facing a lot of uncertainty and then when the decision was made it was suggested to me by the Russians that they would honor my contract by sending me to ISS, but there was no guarantee at that point because the Russian Space Agency had not yet approved.

So I had a lot of ups and downs and heard a lot of rumors that you'd know there'd be no way I could go so that was something I had to live with and then, as you know, in recent months NASA and the ISS partners raised an objection to my flight.

Chilcote: What's been the worst part of this experience?

Tito: Well I think again it was, you know, the up and down. I mean there'd be some days where I'd get some information that would suggest there was no way I was going to fly and even though I wasn't ready to pack my bags because I wasn't going to leave Star City unless I had been given some official denial of my flight.

It was having a dream for 40 years, getting close, and then have it seemingly pulled away, you know, just beyond your grasp and that was probably the worst, but you know I survived, I didn't give up and I just went to training the next day you know knowing that well, maybe this was going to be a wasted day, but I'd still go through the training and work just as hard.

Chilcote: There's a lot of tradition and ritual in preparing cosmonauts, isn't there?

Tito: Well, first of all, the tradition of training cosmonauts for space flight goes back 40 years and I know there's been a lot of controversy about the Russian training procedures versus the American training procedures, and I had read in "Dragonfly" for example that the astronauts often took exception to, you know, some of the Russian training methods. Ah, I found the Russian training methods excellent. One thing that the astronauts complained about was they didn't like the ah regular quizzes or exams that were part of the Russian training. And that's I guess tradition part of their process and I actually enjoyed that because it gave me a chance to ah focus on learning a particular area, mastering it, and then moving on.

So if I look at the whole training process, I learned a tremendous amount and I think after 40 years of training cosmonauts and really taking a leadership role in long-term spaceflight, Russians really know what they're doing and the training ritual, as far as I'm concerned, was just superb, and I feel very confident five days from now being able to, you know, get on top of that rocket and blast off to space.

Chilcote: What's different about this than how'd you prepare for another vacation?

Tito: This is not a vacation. You know, the fulfillment of a life's dream to fly into space. Humans have been wanting to fly all the way back since recorded history, and you know we know a hundred years ago at the dawn of powered flight how exciting that was to people. Only four hundred people have flown in space so that is for me a privilege to be able to actually observe the Earth from outer space, circle the Earth you know once every ninety minutes, and that's the furthest thing from a vacation in mind.

Chilcote: Have you come across anyone else interested in following your lead as a space tourist?

Tito: No I haven't. Most of my time has been here at Star City. I've been fairly isolated.

Chilcote: Rumor has it that there are already people in line for later flights.

Tito: Well, I haven't heard any rumors but I would be very interested in finding out if there are serious interest -- serious people -- with interest in flying over the next several years. Because when I get back I would like to see if I can put together some kind of a business effort to move in that direction and you know if somebody wants to e-mail me at my company address, I'd be happy to talk to them about that.

Chilcote: NASA was opposed to your flight for some time. Their objections have been that: it's too early for amateur flight on the international space station, that you're not prepared enough. What's wrong with that thinking from your point of view?

Tito: NASA was not as adamantly opposed to my flight three or four months ago. I was interviewed for an article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine and the reporter actually called Daniel Goldin up and he indicated that he wasn't crazy about the idea but that since it was helping the Russians, you know, finance their space budget that he was all for it. And that quote was in that magazine. It seemed that somewhere along the line, maybe a couple of months ago that policy changed and all of the sudden issues came up that were never mentioned before.

In my view, those issues do not have any validity. I've been extensively trained. I've done extremely well on all my exams, I've scored perfectly on all my exams. I have the engineering background so I have an advantage over the average cosmonaut. I've done centrifuge training, vestibular training where they spin you on a chair, and scored better than most cosmonauts, so I am extremely qualified for this flight.

It's correct to say that I'm an amateur in the sense that I'm not a professional, just as a college football player would be an amateur football player versus an NBA professional, but that doesn't mean being an amateur doesn't make you any less qualified than a professional. All of the sudden arguments were made about how busy the schedule was that particular week. But to my knowledge at least as indicated by the crew they had suggested that, you know, it would not be any distraction. Also, it was mentioned that the crew did not know me and they never met me and that was absolutely false.

I had dinner and sat next to Susan Helms about six months ago. I've met her several times in Star City. I've been introduced to Jim Voss, and I know Yury Usachev quite well. I've spent time with him in a pressure chamber. I've chatted for hours with him, so I think I know at least two of the three members of the crew quite well.

So a lot of the claims that were made were almost some kind of propaganda, cause they were not true.

Chilcote: Do you think that NASA has been missing the big picture with the philosophy that space travel at this point -- while the station is being built -- is best kept to professional astronauts, and professional cosmonauts?

Tito: There is a concept called professional jealousy. This exists in many, many fields: doctors, actuaries -- we all like to think or even like myself investment professionals. We all like to think we're experts, and if somebody comes in that doesn't have exactly the same training that we do we don't think they're qualified.

So this is a very common thing. So I'm not faulting the astronauts for creating, having a special feeling about their qualifications because they are highly qualified, and they are highly competent. There are so many more applicants than there are people selected, it makes it a special group but that doesn't mean that there aren't millions and millions of people in this world that are qualified, that have the physical qualifications and could be trained for space. So I think it's just a matter of accepting that space should really be for everyone, and not only there should be a commercial space opportunity but I believe the citizen in space program should be resurrected where NASA would allocate one or two seats on the shuttle for citizen astronauts from all sorts of different fields: writers, composers, poets, journalists, artists, people that could experience space and bring it back to the people on Earth. And relate it in ways that astronauts/test pilots might not be able to articulate.

And I think private citizens from all walks of life will be able to take the experience, the spiritual experience of space, the emotional experience of space and relate it back to the common person and therefore we could all as people of this world incorporate space in our art, in our opera, in our music. Ah that hasn't been done, and it's been 40 years since we've been in space.

The agreement that I signed says that NASA withdraws their objection to my flight and will give me limited access to the American segment of ISS in exchange for certain waivers that I was willing to agree to. So we have a signed agreement that gives authorization for me to fly to ISS.

Chilcote: It included a clause where you promise to pay for anything you might break, doesn't it?

Tito: Well if I break it, I have to buy it so if I break the whole station I guess I'm going to have to buy the whole station.

Chilcote: They asked you to put that in writing?

Tito: Absolutely and that's perfectly reasonable. I mean the chances of breaking anything are so remote -- I mean I could break something in a china shop and I'd be liable for it. So what's the difference?

Chilcote: And you promised not to sue NASA?

Tito: Absolutely. Well, I also promised the Russians I wouldn't sue them either. I mean nine months ago when I first signed the contract. I mean this is a space mission. You cannot provide the kind of safety that you would expect in a commercial airline.

Chilcote: What's ahead now?

Tito: Tuesday we will spend most of the day in our spacecraft going through a second familiarization and fitting check, knowing where our payloads are. It will be in the final configuration. And I think if you're going to have a home for the next two days before we reach the station, it's good to get acclimated so when you're seated in the capsule on launch day you're not in an unfamiliar environment. Of course the spacecraft itself is very familiar because I've been training for months in a very similar version of it. But to the extent there is some slight minor differences you get familiarized with that, and you just become acclimated to your spaceship.

Chilcote: How would you compare your Soyuz seat with a seat you might have on a regular airplane?

Tito: Well, I think the Soyuz seat is a lot more comfortable. Because there's a liner that has been molded specifically to your body. You know, I just hope I don't fall asleep on the way up it's so comfortable. (Smiles) Although I don't think that will happen, but it is very comfortable.

We will transfer into the orbital module, which is a lot roomier and you know we'll be able to hang out there for two days.

Chilcote: What are you going to take with you?

Tito: I have a payload of seven kilograms, and I ended up putting together a package that weighed 6.9996 kilograms (laughs) so I used every ounce that I could be allowed. I'm taking a high quality camera, I'm taking a video-camera, I'm taking a videocamera, lots of film -- something like 30 rolls of film. A dictophone with extra tapes, some personal photographs. Also, a CD player, a portable CD player with 8 discs, and seven of the eight are operas, and the eighth is the latest Beatles album.

Chilcote: You've talked about just wanting to gaze at the Earth. Why is that so important?

Tito: Ask anyone of the four hundred people that have flown in space, and ah they will tell you being in space and looking back at Earth is you know one of the most rewarding experiences a human being can have. Because this is our planet, and you know I've been on this planet for 60 years and now I have a chance to get off the planet and circle it once every ninety minutes. That would represent for example going from the West Coast to the East Coast of the United States in something like eight minutes. I can think of no experience that could beat that. Every astronaut or cosmonaut that I've talked to has said that this is the most amazing experience a human being could enjoy. And .I've seen articles written about going on a joy ride and it is absolutely going to be a joy ride and that's what every astronaut and cosmonaut has told me, it is absolute joy.

Chilcote: Are you going to be any good luck charms with you?

Tito: No, I'm a scientist in background and I don't believe in good luck or bad luck -- except in the stock market (laughs).

Chilcote: What are you going to listen to first? How do you imagine that moment?

Tito: You know I haven't thought that out. You know whatever I grab ah I'm going to listen to. Right now there is a ninth CD. I have eight CDs in envelopes, and a ninth CD is actually in the unit and that's Bocelli, Andrea Bocelli. So I guess that's what I'm going to listen to.

Chilcote: How are you going to communicate with people down on Earth?

Tito: I'm not going to depend on either NASA or Russian Mission Control because I think they have plenty to take care of, but there is a HAM Radio Station on board. And it's been indicated to me that I can send packet radio which then will then be forwarded to the e-mail address that I designate if somebody has a computer hooked up to the packet radio, and I made arrangements with one HAM station to do that. So as long as the computer works the way they've trained me in the simulator, I'll be able to send e-mails. And also have voice conversations through other operators.

Chilcote: And you do have some work?

Tito: Well, we have to remove certain equipment, plus our seat liners and some other related equipment from the space craft that we're delivering -- which is the new spacecraft -- to the old spacecraft, which is the one we're going to be returning. So there's a whole procedure there that we're all going to be involved in and it involves also survival gear that's been fitted specifically to our own personal dimensions that goes with us.

Chilcote: What do you think about space food for nine days?

Tito: I'm not looking forward to the food. I mean I'd much rather have sushi, but you know most of the food is canned. I've taste-tested the food and indicated what I like and what I don't like. You know I'll just manage to get by. I'm not you know a big food person anyway. I mean you can probably tell by my size.

Chilcote: Do you have a favorite dish?

Tito: Probably mashed potatoes is the best thing I'm going to have up there (laughs).

Chilcote: You've been working very close with the Russians for these ninth months. What's your impression of the Russian people?

Tito: They're very robust people, and you know they've suffered a lot. I mean they've suffered a tremendous amount over this past century and they've survived it all. You know we are in our society very heavily regulated. You know our government is always protecting us from hurting ourselves, and safety standards. The Russians are where we were in that regard maybe a hundred years ago, or a hundred-fifty years ago. They're more like being in the gold rush days and they have that Wild West attitude and I say that in a positive sense that they're free spirits. So they're a different culture than we are but as far as the safety aspects of their space program. They're very serious about not putting any of their cosmonauts at risk, and they've actually had an excellent safety record. They have not lost anyone in space for thirty years.

There's a schedule of payments and I can tell you the last one gets made the day I land (pause) in one piece.

Chilcote: Some people say you're paying for the entire spacecraft ...

Tito: Some people have said that I have paid for maybe a third of the spacecraft, some people have said -- I just read this on the Web -- that I might be paying for a year of Soyuz vehicles which includes progress and the actual Soyuz spacecraft. So it's hard to say what I'm paying for. But they're flying that vehicle anyway, so whatever I'm paying is almost all incremental revenue to the Russian space program and it is an important amount of money no matter how you look at it. So it's going to actually help the Russians meet their commitments to ISS and that's another reason why this is very important for ISS.

What do you suppose will be going through your mind during liftoff?

Tito: I can't say. I think I'm going to be going to be going over the checklists and just being prepared for the 530 seconds that it takes from liftoff to inject into orbit.

My three children are coming to the launch, several colleagues from Wilshire Associates. My girlfriend is coming, my ex-wife is coming so it should be and my sister and her husband are coming so it should be quite a nice family re-union.

I'll be a third American that has actually been launched on the Soyuz -- Norm Thagard as part of the Shuttle-Mir program, Bill Shepherd for the first expedition of ISS and I'll be the third, but Norm and Bill came back on the shuttle so I'm the first American to land on the Soyuz.

Chilcote: Kazakhstan is an interesting place to end your adventure. You'll be landing in the desert.

Tito: Well, that's a nice place to land. I'd rather land there than the middle of New York City.



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