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Inside the mind of a space tycoon

The world’s first space tourist wants to lead the charge into orbit by artists, musicians, novelists, actors — in short, anyone creative.
The world's first paying space passenger, Dennis Tito, gestures after landing in Kazakhstan on May 6, 2001.
The world's first paying space passenger, Dennis Tito, gestures after landing in Kazakhstan on May 6, 2001.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The world’s first space tourist wants to lead the charge into orbit by artists, musicians, novelists, movie producers, actors — in short, anyone creative. “I don’t think anyone realizes how beautiful space is,” California millionaire Dennis Tito said.

“If space was something that the average person could really appreciate in the literature, not being spoken by test pilots but by artists, by creative people, even a reformed gang member from Watts. You know, ‘Hey, man, this is a cool event.’ To relate it to diverse groups of people in our culture, maybe a rap singer, who knows? There’s a tremendous opportunity there to add value to our society,” he said in an interview before his flight in April-May 2001.

Never mind NASA’s stern admonition that space is no place for amateurs. Tito says his launch aboard a Russian rocket and six-day stay on the International Space Station demonstrates that anyone can — and should — experience space.

The money generated by paying customers, the financier says, would provide the capital needed to lower the cost of launch vehicles and the price to get people to orbit. His eight-day trip cost as much as $20 million; he won’t specify how much he paid Russian space officials.

In the wake of his flight, he said his No. 1 job — besides returning to his chief executive office at Wilshire Associates in Santa Monica, Calif. — was to spread his space-is-for-all message.

“My entire intention is to just open my arms to NASA ... try to maybe get them to think a little bit differently,” he said.

Problems on Earth
That part of Tito’s quest might be even harder than getting into orbit. NASA waited until four days before Tito’s scheduled launch from Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts before signing off on his flight, and did so reluctantly. Russian space officials insisted for months that it was their Soyuz rocket and they could put anyone they want on board, an attitude that vexed their U.S. counterparts.

No more space cowboys, NASA warns.

The 60-year-old Tito is a one-time exception, according to NASA and the European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies, and from now on any space station guests will have to meet criteria agreed upon by all the space station partners. Safety must be paramount, the agencies contend.

Tito agrees that criteria are needed and points to himself as the perfect role model, a space enthusiast long before he struck it rich.

Roots of a dream
The tycoon became smitten with space travel while growing up in Queens, N.Y., the oldest child of working-class Italian immigrants whose ancestors came from the town of Tito in southern Italy. His father was a printer, and his mother was a seamstress.

“If you want to know what my house was like, just look at the set of ‘All in the Family,’” Tito said.

Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, sparked his teen-age imagination.

Tito earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and went to work in 1964 for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He charted flight paths for NASA’s Mariner Mars probes, earning $15,000 a year. But he yearned for more — more money.

Pursuing the money
Tito founded Wilshire Associates in the early 1970s, using the mathematical acumen he developed during his NASA career to analyze the market instead. His firm produces the Wilshire 500 Total Market Index, which is watched by Federal Reserve officials as an overall snapshot of U.S. stock markets.

By age 40, he had made his first million. The millions kept piling up; the investment firm now manages more than $10 billion in assets and advises on $1 trillion in assets.

His personal fortune is estimated at $200 million.

Tito’s passions include opera, sailing and buying fast cars — but driving them slowly. Most are housed in the eight-car garage of his 30,000-square-foot manor house with ocean views that he built on top of a mountain in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles.

He and his wife, Suzanne, divorced amicably shortly after the house was completed. His three children are in their 20s.

In addition to his private pursuits, Tito is a substantial contributor to Republican political causes. During one week in May 1999, he gave $100,000 to the GOP — $95,000 to the Republican National Committee and $5,000 to the Republican Party of California. Tito gave $1,000 to President George W. Bush’s campaign in 1999 and attended his inauguration.

Pursuing the dream
With disposable income galore, Tito toyed with the idea of flying to Mir in the early 1990s. The Russians had just sent up a Japanese journalist and a British chemist for cash, and Tito wanted to be the next guest cosmonaut. But the Soviet Union’s collapse forced him to put his dream on hold.

His girlfriend, Dawn Abraham, said Tito wooed her with talk of space two years ago when they met for the first time for a business lunch in Santa Monica, Calif.

“He started to talk to me about space ... at the first meeting,” said Abraham, who runs a personnel firm. “Actually, that’s why I started to like him, because at first I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to be some business guy, it’s going to be boring.’”

The space dream came alive again in April 2000, when the MirCorp joint venture called in  hopes of keeping Mir afloat.

Tito put millions into an escrow account that the Russian space program could access once he was launched to Mir, and moved from his mansion into a spartan apartment at cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, outside Moscow. There, the 5-foot-5, 140-pound, fit-looking businessman threw himself into training. “The Russians didn’t cut any corners,” he boasted.

When Russia decided to sink its 15-year-old space station, officials offered Tito an alternative destination — the International Space Station, barely 2½ years old. Another Soyuz spacecraft was needed at the space station as a fresh lifeboat, and the third, empty seat was offered to him.

His switched ticket set off a contentious debate between the Russian Space Agency and NASA and all the other space station partners. The disagreement crescendoed last month when Tito was barred from joining his two Russian crewmates in space station training at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The cosmonauts boycotted their training for one day, then relented — with the understanding Tito would be on board with them no matter what.

Tito was thrilled with the change in travel plans. “They’re different star hotels,” he said of the two space stations.

Reflecting on history
He took special delight in launching from the same pad where Sputnik took off on Oct. 4, 1957, and where the world’s first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, took off on April 12, 1961.

Tito was the third American to be launched aboard a Russian rocket, but the first to land in a Russian spacecraft. The Soyuz capsule parachutes down into remote Kazakhstan.

Tito also ranked as the oldest person to be launched aboard a Russian rocket, and the third-oldest person to fly in space. John Glenn flew at age 77, Story Musgrave at 61.

All three of Tito’s children were at the Baikonur Cosmodrome for his launch. Tito said his children accepted his unusual choice in vacation, shrugging it off as “typical dad.” His own father, long dead, would have thought he was crazy. His mother, also dead, cried for nine months after he left New York for California, “so I can imagine she’d cry on this one.”

His son Brad gave him a knitted Hopi Indian talisman to take on the trip.

“The Hopis believe that the prayer knots are a powerful thing. It has to do with preserving their culture from one generation to the next,” Brad Tito explained. “They spread them all over the Earth with the prayers that they carry, and now they are sending them into space.”

Dennis Tito insisted he was not afraid or even nervous about his flight.

“If you’re going to die of natural causes, does it pay to sit at home and be afraid to cross the street? I mean, like Howard Hughes. What did he do? He became a recluse and was afraid of germs,” Tito said.

“The main thing is, I’m not crazy.”

NBC News producer Robert Windrem, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.