Fresh from his excellent adventure above the planet, American space tourist Dennis Tito said today that he plans to promote the commercialization of outer space in spite of official U.S. opposition, and he chided the head of NASA for questioning his patriotism.
Tito, who returned to Earth on Sunday after an eight-day trip into orbit that cost him $20 million, described the journey as the most profound experience of his life and choked up at one point as he recalled speaking to his two sons by ham radio from the international space station.
But he bristled at the notion that he was just an amateur with no business being up there, as NASA asserted in the days before his launch. Implicitly criticizing Tito, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin last week praised Hollywood director James Cameron, who wants to be next in space, for dealing with U.S. authorities rather than the Russians, calling him an "American patriot" even though Cameron is Canadian.
"With due respect to Mr. Goldin," Tito replied sharply today, "I don't think he's in a position to determine who is an American patriot or who isn't."
At a news conference at the Russian cosmonaut training center where he appeared chipper in a blue flight suit with a U.S. flag patch, Tito said he wants to encourage further ventures that would allow those with enough money to travel to space. He suggested he would explore financing options for "stand-alone vehicles" devoted specifically to that purpose and might put his own money into such an enterprise.
"I think I can play a role as an intermediary between Wall Street and the space agency in getting that done," he said. "And I hope I will be successful."
The Russian space agency, which eagerly accepted Tito's money in exchange for a seat aboard a Soyuz taxi flight to the international station, reportedly is considering 10 other possible paying customers.
Tito's crew mates vouched for his fitness for space travel after nine months of training and his helpfulness while aboard the station. Yuri Baturin called Tito "the only American cosmonaut," noting that U.S. astronauts who have flown with the Russians did not return to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule flaming through the atmosphere to land on the steppes of Central Asia as Tito did Sunday.
Tito, a reserved 60-year-old financier from Los Angeles, said his most meaningful moments in space came when he used a ham radio each night to talk with his family. He teared up and could not go on speaking when he noted that one night he spoke with both of his grown sons.
In recounting his extraterrestrial vacation, Tito said the launch was so "non-eventful" that doctors told him later his heartbeat never went above 72 beats per minute. But within a few hours, he said he grew "a little overconfident" and decided to eat some fruit and drink some fruit juice. Space sickness quickly led to vomiting.
Still, he reported no further troubles and felt so well upon returning that he went running this morning. His biggest adjustment, he suggested, would be getting used to celebrity. "I would like people to see me as a serious man that had a dream and pursued it in the face of great difficulty," he said. "And that, you know, I should be an example to others that they should not live for tomorrow or the next day; they should live for the future."