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'Jumping to the Moon' Is Now His Dream Come True

Adventure: A U.S. financier becomes the first 'space tourist' with today's scheduled liftoff.


MOSCOW — When Dennis Tito's sons were young, he told the boys that they could do anything if they set their minds to it.

"So I tried to imagine the most impossible thing I could, and that was jumping to the moon," recalls Brad Tito, now 23. "Well, guess what? Dad's jumping to the moon."

Not quite all the way to the moon. But if all goes as planned, Tito today will become the world's first "space tourist"--not the first civilian to venture into the heavens but the first to pay his own passage.

The "space tourist" moniker suggests to some that the self-made multimillionaire, who lives in Pacific Palisades, is somehow cheapening the out-of-this-world experience by buying it for $20 million. But Tito's family and supporters disagree, calling him a pioneer in the commercialization of space travel.

"If our destiny is to put humans in space, then this is a big step," Brad Tito said in a telephone interview before leaving Friday for the launch site at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

To gain a seat on the Soyuz rocket scheduled to lift off early this morning, the elder Tito didn't just have to log 900 hours of training over eight months in Russia. He also had to overcome the strong objections of NASA, which tried to block plans to ferry the financier to the International Space Station, or ISS.

The U.S. space agency said it was concerned about safety aboard the station, which is still under construction. But each of the 16 nations participating in the ISS project has the right to choose its own crew, so NASA could not veto Tito's flight.

U.S. space officials acquiesced in the end, imposing a rule that Tito cannot leave the Russian section of the station without an escort. And they made him sign an agreement to pay for anything he damages.

On Friday, NASA made another request: It asked the Russian space agency to consider postponing the launch by a day to allow a U.S. shuttle crew on board the station more time to fix computer problems in the American sector. The extended repair effort means that the shuttle Endeavour might still be docked if the Soyuz arrives as scheduled Monday. NASA is worried about the Soyuz passing too close to the shuttle as the Russian craft docks at a nearby port.

Later Friday, NASA said that Russian space officials agreed to put the Soyuz in a holding pattern if the shuttle was still at the space station Monday. There was no immediate comment from Russian officials.

For his part, Tito said he doesn't understand why NASA has been so opposed to his trip.

"I think this flight will be very good for NASA, and I think that the ISS needs positive publicity," he said at a news conference this week from Baikonur. "And I think that ultimately NASA will be very happy that I made this flight."

Tito is scheduled to spend 10 days in space--six on the station and the rest in transit. While at the station, he plans to keep busy with photography projects.

Tito's elder son, Mike, who lives in Santa Monica and runs an investment Web site, said he thinks that part of NASA's reluctance comes from the fact that his father's spaceflight will puncture some of the mystery around astronauts and cosmonauts.

"There's a whole mythology in America about 'the right stuff,' " the 26-year-old said. "But these people aren't superhumans. They're just people like you and me."

The sons are only part of a large contingent of Tito family members and associates who have flocked to Baikonur for the launch. They take umbrage at any suggestion that the former aerospace engineer, who once worked at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is reported to be worth more than $200 million, is just a guy with a wallet as big as his ego.

"He's not just someone with a lot of money saying, 'Please take me along,' " said Tom Stevens, an aide at Wilshire Associates, Tito's Santa Monica investment firm. "He's probably the best-trained of any non-cosmonaut to go into space."

"I mean, the guy is actually a rocket scientist," said Brad Tito, who builds eco-friendly housing in Prescott, Ariz.

Robert Sherman, a space expert with the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, doesn't buy the argument that Tito is pioneering the commercialization of space. He calls the mission a very expensive "joy ride."

"We're talking about something that only the very, very rich can afford," he said. "That's not commercialization in the real sense of the term."

Sherman compares the question of commercializing space travel to the development of supersonic passenger jets. In the early 1970s, he said, the U.S. government decided not to support such a program in part because it would involve using tax dollars to benefit mostly affluent airline customers. The intervening years showed that the British and French Concorde not only lost money but also served primarily wealthy clientele, he said.

"In retrospect, that turned out to be a wise decision" on the U.S. government's part, he said. "Space travel is an extrapolation of that argument."

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