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Destination is no whim for first space tourist

California millionaire Dennis Tito left a NASA career behind but not his lifelong dream.

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- He lives alone in a 30,000-square-foot hilltop house that may be the biggest in town, with a room devoted to the collection of gas-powered model airplanes he built.

He loves sailing and opera and fast cars, which his friends and family say he drives slowly. He made a fortune in the earthbound field of pension fund management but never gave up on his youthful dream of reaching for the stars.

If all goes as planned, Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old, 5-foot-5, 140-pound centimillionaire, will become the world's first extraterrestrial tourist, blasting off today in an extra seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a six-day mission aboard the international space station.

The rumored price tag: up to $20-million to the cash-strapped Russian space program, plus a signed promise that he will pay for anything he breaks or damages during the flight and that his heirs will not sue the space station's partners if something worse happens.

The son of a printer and seamstress from Forest Hills in Queens, N.Y., Tito began his career as an aerospace engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designing trajectories for the Mariner spacecraft missions to Mars and Venus before switching paths 30 years ago and applying computer concepts to investment strategy. His investment consulting company, Wilshire Associates, now provides advice for the management of about $1-trillion in assets, directly manages $10-billion and is best known for its Wilshire 5000 stock index.

"I've known Dennis for 30 years, and he's never grown up," said his friend and fellow Republican, Mayor Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles.

"I'm envious. If you've got the money he's got, why not do something like this? He's just going to have a ball."

Tito, whose plan was long opposed by officials of NASA and other countries who are partners in the space station, spent more than seven months in Russia training. He is in vigorous health.

Tito was quarantined in preparation for liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and unavailable to be interviewed this week. But, speaking to the New York Times last year, he said: "We have one life to live on this Earth, and my commitment is to fulfill all of my dreams which are healthy and legitimate."

About 25 family members, partners and friends, including his former wife and business partner, Suzanne, flew to Russia to bid Tito bon voyage as he goes through the takeoff rituals of the Russian space program, including a final, ceremonial urination on the tires of the van that will take him and his fellow astronauts to the launching pad. In a telephone interview from their hotel in Moscow, where it was the middle of the night, Tito's two sons, Mike, 26, and Brad, 23, reflected gleefully, and soberly, on their father's dream.

"The way I see it, the guy grew up in Queens and he wasn't well off; he went to school and worked for NASA, did some pioneering work there and went off to make a lot of money," said Brad Tito, who lives in Arizona and runs a business building environmentally sensitive homes.

"Basically, he's at the point in his life where he's thinking about what's really important, and in the end, when we all ask ourselves that, it ends up being life-experience. To look back on the Earth as one whole living organism, and see that there's no political boundaries, to kind of see life from a bigger perspective, it's got to be an incredibly profound experience."

Mike Tito, who worked with his father at Wilshire but recently left to start his own investment-advice Web site, joined Tito in Russia last year for a zero-gravity training flight and a simulation of the G-forces of rocket launch, which he described as "much more extreme than any roller-coaster you could imagine." But he said he had "absolutely no concerns" about his father's safety in space.

The Tito brothers said their father was not hard-driving.

"I think there's a sort of impression that someone like this would be very tough on their kids, but he's the most, he's a free-thinker," Mike Tito said.

"He's no Montgomery Burns," Brad Tito added, referring to the shriveled tycoon on The Simpsons.

Both brothers said Tito taught them to "think outside the box," and it is a phrase others echo.

Tito has said he first dreamed of space when he saw an early satellite blinking overhead, but thought he stood no chance to join the pioneer generation of astronauts, who were veteran fighter pilots, so he set the dream aside. A decade ago, he first sounded out the Russians about hitching a ride, but the attempted coup that almost overthrew Mikhail Gorbachev ruined that opportunity.

Eventually, he booked a trip to Russia's aging Mir space station, but when the Russians decided to scuttle it, he assumed his dream was blocked again, only to find the Russians willing to let him visit their part of the international space station instead. Just this week, the station's other partners finally dropped their objections.

Friends say Tito gives generously to philanthropic causes and often lends out his house for events, including some for the Los Angeles Opera, on whose board he serves. He has talked about using his wealth to finance a space museum or invest in the first generation of sub-orbital aircraft that might someday rocket halfway around the world in minutes.

"At first I thought this was kind of like a waste of $20-million," Brad Tito said from Moscow, quickly amending himself to add: "Not a waste. I support him. He's my father. But you sure can do a lot with $20-million, in a charitable capacity, to change the lives of millions of people, you know. Maybe this will, too."

Background on Dennis Tito's planned space vacation:

WHO HE IS: Tito, 60, is a one-time rocket engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who later went into finance and founded the Wilshire Associates investment firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

WHERE HE'S GOING: The international space station, an elaborate 16-nation project orbiting the Earth.

COST OF VOYAGE: Reportedly up to $20-million.

HOW HE'S GETTING THERE: Aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket that is to blast off today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan. He will be accompanied by two Russian astronauts.

ITINERARY: The rocket is expected to dock with the space station Monday, and Tito plans to spend six days aboard. He will spend most of his time in the Russia-made Zvezda module, but may be allowed to visit the American segment.

HOW HE BOOKED THE TRIP: He initially signed an agreement with the MirCorp company, which was seeking private sources of money for Russia's Mir space station. But Russia decided to ditch the deteriorating Mir, and Tito's destination was switched, despite objections from NASA.

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