On Tuesday, Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos and a small team onboard the New Shepard rocket flew past the edge of space. The launch was part of Bezos’s Blue Origin space venture.
Only nine days before, the British business magnate Richard Branson flew on a similar suborbital trajectory onboard the SpaceShipTwo Unity before landing at a runway at Virgin Galactic’s facility in the New Mexico desert.
But despite their wealth, neither man is considered the first space tourist. Instead, that title goes to a lesser-known U.S. business executive: entrepreneur Dennis Tito, who on April 30, 2001, paid roughly $20 million to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket to the International Space Station (ISS).
Unlike Branson and Bezos, as well as another commercially minded project from Elon Musk called Space X, Tito’s journey was not an independent proof of concept. Instead, he worked with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, to get a ride on the Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan.
In an interview with CNN last week, Tito said he had been inspired by the 1961 voyage of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who beat his American rivals to become the first human to go into space.
Knowing that NASA did not support private citizens buying tickets aboard flights, he first contacted the Soviet program shortly before its collapse in 1991. It was only later, however, that the newly independent Russia’s economic woes would make his dream a reality.
“Americans don’t need the money, so if you go and offer NASA $20 million, that’s a drop in the bucket,” Tito told The Washington Post at the time. “But that’s a lot of money for the Russian space program.” Indeed, it’s nearly one-seventh of this year’s $145 million budget.
Tito’s journey to the ISS two decades ago was far higher than those of Bezos and Branson, both of whom made comparatively moderate up-and-down trips to the very border of space. Bezos’s suborbital trip was 66.5 miles, compared with the 250-mile trip Tito took.
While Tito was the first person to pay for himself to fly to space with the Russian help, he wasn’t the first person whose spot on a Roscosmos flight was paid for.
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow officials had agreed to let journalist Toyohiro Akiyama travel to the Mir space station. Akiyama’s employer, Tokyo Broadcasting System, agreed to pay the cash-strapped space agency around $12 million for his voyage on the Soyuz rocket.
The Post reported the “Soyuz rocket was so commercialized it looked like a flying billboard when it blasted off Sunday” with its “nose cone and fins … festooned with the logos of TBS and other Japanese corporate sponsors, including a toothpaste firm and a producer of paper diapers.”
Later, during Russia’s economically turbulent 1990s, a logo for Pizza Hut was painted on the side of a Russian rocket and commercials were filmed at the Mir space station.
But Tito’s voyage was a new concept — that a wealthy person could go to space for no reason other than they want to — and was criticized by some U.S. space officials. “Space is not about egos,” NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin told reporters at the time.
More wealthy space tourists would follow in Tito’s footsteps, including Richard Garriott, a computer-game designer, whose U.S. company Space Adventures had worked with the Russian space agency to arrange Tito’s flight. (Garriott had originally intended to take the first flight himself, but lost out after his wealth suffered during the dot-com bubble crash.)
In total, seven Space Adventures clients would travel to space with Russian rockets, while other clients would travel to Russia and Kazakhstan to complete training.
Russian involvement in commercial space travel has effectively stopped since 2009, with NASA buying up seats on Russian rockets for its own trips to the ISS after the end of the U.S. space shuttle program.
Around that time, well out of the economic doldrums of the 1990s, Russia also tried to move away from the more commercial aspects of its space program, which had become notorious for scandal and corruption.
But with the explosion of interest in space travel, the Russian move away from it may now be looked upon with regret. After Branson’s space flight last week, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Twitter that it was a “landmark event” — though, he noted pointedly, only a “suborbital flight.”
Rogozin also criticized Russian billionaires for spending their money on yachts and other vanities.
Roscosmos has a number of commercial trips to the ISS set for later this year, as well as plans for the first tourist spacewalk at the station in 2023, an event planned with Space Adventures.
But Russia is no longer the only space program interested in tourism. Despite its earlier opposition, NASA now works closely with private space ventures and in 2019 announced it would open up the ISS to commercial businesses.
The cost would be roughly $35,000 per night at the station, the U.S. space agency said — and an estimated $50 million for a seat on the flight there, officials told The Post.